Graduate student Rickey Dooley holds up a container of algae mixed with hydrogen sulfide used to examine growth rate of algae. Photo by Joseph Oh
Researchers at the UW and Washington State University are teaming up to continue a project that started at the UW over the summer. The research could help save the planet — one poison at a time.
UW master’s student Ricky Dooley; Suven Nair, an undergraduate senior in biology; and Peter Ward, paleontologist and UW professor, experimented on the growth potential of plants doused in hydrogen sulfide and paid for it out of their own pockets. They had gotten donations from NASA in the form of equipment and Space Wheat seeds, but most of the project’s other needs were purchased by one of the three scientists — such as alternate seeds, plant medium, and other necessities.
Dooley’s experiment developed from research into historic extinction events from millions of years ago. As the volcanic events occurred over time, plant life adapted and evolved to detect minimal amounts of volcanic chemicals. Upon detection, plants will go into overdrive in order to survive the oncoming extinction.
After meeting with the United Nations and Pat Binns, an agricultural and environmental sustainability consultant, the researchers’ luck started to change. This fortuitous meeting managed to connect the UW’s researchers with agricultural scientists from WSU.
Amit Dhingra, a horticulturist and plant geneticist at WSU, was introduced to the UW team by Binns. Since the meeting, Dhingra has been eager to recreate the UW team’s revolutionary data and take a look at the final plant’s genetic code.
Using conventional breeding methods and producing results like those the UW researchers experienced with hydrogen sulfide could take 10-20 years; however, the first experiment only took 180 days to complete.
“This is a huge thing, actually,” Dhingra said. “[This research is] exciting for the potential, for all plants. … [It is] an awesome thing for everyone in agriculture.”
Soil samples are prepared so experimentation can begin once they are transferred to the facility at WSU.
Dhingra’s team is looking at what genetic switches are turned on when the plant is exposed to hydrogen sulfide. The researchers want to know why the plants are changing and what’s happening at a genetic level to cause the changes to happen.
The reason the research is revolutionary may stem from the controversy surrounding Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). GMOs can be created by splicing modified genes into the genetic code of plants, changing them on the smallest of levels. However, this technology is not viewed favorably by some members of the public.
Research with hydrogen sulfide is promising because it can get some of the same desired effects — quicker growth and larger yields — without having to fiddle with the genetics.
It could also reveal the genetic switch that is flipped, which can be translated into a better-working GMO.
Dooley and his team learned how to influence the plant into detecting volcanic chemicals, which makes the plant yield more. They have tracked these findings in both edible plants, such as wheat and peas, and in plants that could be used for fuels, such as corn for biodiesel and algae for their oily lipids.
Dhingra said the research may solve an ethical dilemma society faces: Should people grow food or fuel in the limited space available? If there’s a way to control these plants to make more produce without having to genetically modify them or take away land resources, it would help people everywhere.
Dooley said what would have taken his mostly unfunded team years at the UW could take as little as six months at WSU.
Dhingra’s team is in the beginning stages of replicating the original experiment’s results, having started only two weeks ago.
Dooley said, in jest, there’s an understood agreement that everything will run smoothly and cooperatively until one week in November. That week would be the Apple Cup between the Huskies and the Cougars, happening in Pullman on Nov. 23. Then all bets are off.
Reach reporter Deanna Isaacs at email@example.com. Twitter: @Deeliteraryone
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