November 27, 2017

STEMs and Petals

Engaging UMass Amherst students in the research of flower evolution

With an emphasis on encouraging young women in science, UMass Amherst Assistant Professor of Biology Madelaine Bartlett has received a 5-year, $837,000 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Grant to study the evolution of flowers—particularly in the economically important grass and grain family. Yet as much as it’s about flowers, Bartlett’s project also is about students: offering summer courses in basic molecular biology for high school students, training undergraduates to do research in molecular biology and evolution in a lab-based class, and involving graduate students in research and outreach.

The grant, which awards teacher-scholars, has already engaged its first high school intern as a prototype for many more to come: “She was in the field, in the lab; she did DNA extractions—she got to experience what it’s like to be a maize geneticist from the cornfield to the lab,” says Bartlett with admiration.

Grass flowers from Oryza latifolia.Grass flowers from Oryza latifolia. Photo by J. Travis Columbus.

The project intends to illuminate how the genetics of flowers influence their development. “Development evolves over time through small changes in key developmental regulators: genes and proteins that are at the top of a developmental sequence,” Bartlett explains. “Without this particular developmental gene, you won’t make a petal—it’s like the CEO at the top, but petals are very complex, and there are a lot of things that have to happen before you arrive at a petal.

“Many people don’t even know grasses make flowers; they’re so small and so specialized for what they do. But orchid and grass flower development are both controlled by the same genes—flowers that look very different are being built from the same components.”

“Understanding how those genes function remains a major question about biology,” emphasizes Bartlett. “Grass is turning on x set of genes and an orchid is turning on y set of genes, but how do we transition over the course of evolution from x to y? What are the factors allowing these downstream genes to change?”

Protein complexes are one thing that controls this downstream function—with the major difference that, as Bartlett elaborates, “instead of a CEO, now it’s a board. And depending on the composition of people in that boardroom, you’ll have different outcomes.”

Using a system she developed, Bartlett, in collaboration with her colleague Courtney Babbitt, plans a series of genomic experiments to observe the effects in flowering plants if the composition of their protein complexes is experimentally altered.

One of the roles of graduate students in Bartlett’s project is to train and mentor high school students to assist in this research—thus weaving science education with the means by which the research is achieved.

Having girls conceive of themselves as scientists from an early age encourages that they’ll enroll in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] courses and persist in STEM careers, asserts Bartlett: “I’m a fierce feminist. I’m pro-equality, pro-equal opportunity to surpass factors that are out of our control. Representation is really important, to get that representation early.”