Plant Biology Waxes at UMass

by Tobias Baskin

In 1963, while Peter Hepler was putting coleus plants under the electron microscope to understand how they build xylem tissue, he saw tiny tubes within the cytoplasm. These are now known as microtubules, an essential part of the cell's cytoskeleton, and Peter would have been their discoverer of record except he got scooped that year by a couple of guys at Harvard. Undeterred, Peter went on to have a highly-acclaimed career studying microtubules and other structures of plant cells. He moved to UMass in 1975 joining the already well respected Plant Biology group, and he has not stopped putting plants under the microscope.

Old-timers will remember the JEOL transmission EM humming warmly in the Hepler lab. This has since been replaced by two high-resolution light microscopes, as Hepler's interests have moved to imaging structures in living cells. He has pioneered various ways of imaging cellular machinery, not only proteins such as the filamentous and surprisingly dynamic cytoskeleton, but also ions, such as calcium that do business by shuttling from one corner of a cell to another.

Unchanged is the sparkle in Peter Hepler's eyes, as he might hold forth on the dynamics of cellular microtubules or, for that matter, on the dynamics of Richard Goode's fingers playing Schubert. Peter retired in 2003 but retains an active NSF grant. He was recently named a fellow of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science. He has published more than 200 peer-reviewed papers and, so far, he shows no signs of slowing down.

Meanwhile plant scientists continue to bloom in our Morrill Science Center. Since our last newsletter (Spring 2001), the Biology Department has sprouted a healthy crop of plant scientists. First here was Tobias Baskin, hired in 2003. Baskin got his Ph.D. from Stanford and was on the faculty at the University of Missouri Columbia (Go Tigers!) for 11 years before joining UMass. Baskin uses cellular and physiological techniques to understand the process of plant cell expansion. His focus has been on studying the classic meristem tissues in various model systems such as corn and the newbie-model Arabidopsis thaliana to understand growth.

Next on the scene was Magdalena Bezanilla, arriving in 2005. She got her Ph. D. from Johns Hopkins, working with the Godfather of actin biochemistry, Tom Pollard. Bezanilla is pioneering the use of a moss, Physcomitrella, whose genome has been sequenced as a model system to study the role of actin in cellular organization and tip growth. She is focused on understanding tip growth through studying the proteins that interact with actin. Since the genome sequence is known, Bezanilla can have RNAis synthesised that interfere with the expression of each of the genes she can identify. This high level cell biology may well teach us how growth is regulated. However much she likes moss, she isn't letting any grow on herself: she has already published a set of influential papers, been recommended for tenure, has been awarded a Packard Fellowship in Science and Engineering and will be invited to the White House to receive a Presidential Early Career Award.

The next year, 2006, saw the arrival of Ana Caicedo. While an undergraduate, at the Universidad de los Andes, in Bogota, Colombia, Ana was an exchange student at UMass and lived in the Southwest dorm complex. Evidently, she was destined to return. Ana received her Ph. D. from Washington University of St Louis. She uses molecular and genomic methods to study the evolution of crop plants and their weedy relatives. Ana was named to the 2008-09 Lilly Teaching Fellows. The Lilly Fellowship is a competitive award program, established in 1986, enabling promising junior faculty to cultivate teaching excellence in a special year-long collaboration. Each year eight to ten teaching fellows are selected to work closely with the Center For Teaching (CFT) on individual projects that typically involve developing or redesigning a course.

Two years later, in 2008, Sam Hazen joined the Department. Sam got his Ph. D. at Michigan State University. He did a postdoc at Scripps with the legendary Steve Kay, where he surfed the web-like regulatory network driving circadian rhythms. Here at UMass, he is still interested in networks but in this case relating to cell wall synthesis. He is a lynchpin in campus efforts to tap resources available to refine biofuel, the raw material for which is, nearly exclusively, plant cell wall.

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