Fourth-year student hopes to make career out of research

Senior researcher focuses on plant genomic expression

Kushagra Gupta, Staff Reporter

Many students conduct research for reasons like boosting their resume or to exploring interests in certain fields. Senior researcher Morgan MacBeth, however, plans to take on this trade for life, hoping to eventually have her own lab. The biochemistry major plans to continue on to graduate school and obtain a doctorate in Microbiological Sciences.

This past summer, she studied the microbial life present in the rhizosphere of soil. The rhizosphere is the upper portion of soil that plant roots interact with.

MacBeth said, “We looked at that data, and saw how similar related species of plants and their microbial—bacterial communities and fungal communities—were.”

The group saw that bacterial communities were of similar species but fungal communities were not.

However, the interesting aspect of her findings is the effect of growing rare plants in low-nutrient soil on its vitality. If a plant is grown in soil with similar kinds of necessary microbial life or next to a plant that contains the vital microbes, then it will most likely grow successfully. Eventually, these findings could be used to improve agriculture by making it easier to farm on low-nutrient soils.

Now, however, MacBeth has begun a new line of research that is more focused on the interests in her future. Her research involves studying how DNA moves within plants and how plants can express or not express certain genomes. Additionally, she’s interested in how DNA can disassemble and reassemble.

The work can be arduous. The DNA sequence she’s studying, LAS1, is 6 kilobases (kb) long and is expressed when the plant is in a low-nutrient and low-water environment. Once she obtains a piece of DNA, she has to run a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) on it. The PCR creates millions of copies of the piece, making it easier to experiment on. Next, she uses gel electrophoresis, a process that divides DNA into bands that separate from each other based on their sequence. This process is lengthy, with the PCR taking two hours and the gel electrophoresis one hour. Due to this, she works from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

However, she takes time commitment in stride, joking, “Growing plants takes a couple months. It takes a little bit.”

After this, she takes the bacteria and inserts it into the sequence.

She said, “You take the bacteria you grow with the insertion sequence in the bacteria and put a surfactant in the solution, too. You dip the plants while they’re budding. The bacteria will get into the plant and the surfactant will open the cells and it’ll express the sequence that you want.”

The plants were grown in an ideal high-nutrient and high-water environment. The results showed that when plants first took up the DNA sequence, they expressed it. However, as the plant grew, it expressed the sequence in decreasing amounts. It was occasionally found to present dispersedly on the upper region of the plant, but the plant clearly stopped expressing the gene.
She explained, “We’re trying to figure out how the mechanisms of how the DNA moves in and out of the chromosome and nucleus.”
In order to answer this question, she’s planning another project. Her next project involves taking seeds from the plants she is growing now and growing a second generation. This time, however, Macbeth will begin by growing the seeds in a low-nutrient and low-water environment. Using this method, the group can see if the plant will select for the LAS1 sequence.
The results from this work will provide a large step forward in understanding how to efficiently grow plants, providing invaluable insight to agriculture.
“We can understand how DNA moves through plants, all plants. We can see how genes are selected for,” explained MacBeth.
When she’s not doing research on campus, MacBeth is busy with the competitive Ultimate team on campus. She’s also part of Pi Beta Phi and the Scuba Club.