The Stunning Diversity of Plants

10 Questions with...

Kirsten Bomblies, MacArthur genius and Harvard biology professor, answers our 10 questions, discussing the immune system of plants and how young scientists can keep inspiration alive.

Name:

Kirsten Bomblies

Age:

36

Job title:

Assistant Professor

Location:

Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

[1] How do you explain your job at cocktail parties?

Think of the stunning diversity of plants. They’re everywhere and come in a huge variety of shapes, colors, and sizes. They feed us, shelter us, bring us joy, heal or poison us. They monitor their surroundings constantly and adjust as needed, since they cannot move to escape danger. Like animals, they have adapted to a specific set of circumstances. Today, more and more plant populations (wild species and crop species alike) are being impacted by human activities or pushed to the limits of their adaptations by habitat or climate changes.

In my group, we are interested in the genetic networks underlying complex adaptations. In other words, we look at how genomes of individuals help them survive, and how they are modified by selection as populations adapt to drought, elevated temperature, and other challenges. Ultimately, we want to be able to connect what happens at the level of individual survivorship to the level of entire populations or species. This kind of molecular information can give us insights into why some things are connected—for example, why does stress, such as drought or elevated temperature, often hamper the ability of plants to fend off pathogens? This is a first step in finding ways to help the plants we love and depend on cope with new challenges, through genetically informed conservation efforts, or in the case of crops, targeted breeding or biotechnology.

[2] In the past six months, what has been the most exciting advance or breakthrough you’ve had in the lab?

Mine is a young lab, so our work is in its earliest stages. However, one area that I am particularly excited about is that we have started working on a quirky and challenging species closely related to the fruit fly of the plant world, Arabidopsis thaliana. This species, Arabidopsis arenosa, lets us to study adaptive traits that our usual model doesn’t have. In a week, we are going to get flooded with whole-genome DNA sequence information from several A. arenosa plants with interesting adaptations. While the gene sequences alone will not conclusively tell us what helps these plants adapt, they open the door for future experiments, as well as helping us better understand this species as a model.

[3] Complete this sentence: We could make huge strides in the field, if we could just figure out…

...the trade-offs that happen when plants are faced with multiple stresses. We know a little bit about this, but we’re far from fully understanding why plants are sometimes incapable of dealing with, for instance, high temperature and a pathogen attack at the same time.

[4] What’s the biggest misconception about your field?

A fair number of people think that plants are dull because they don’t move around. But what’s amazing is that they face many of the same challenges as animals and have found ways to deal with them that don’t involve mobility. And they are definitely dynamic—it’s just that they operate on a scale in time and space that is hard for the casual observer to see.

[5] Scientist you’d most like to meet?

That’s a tough one… there are many. Perhaps Bernd Heinrich of the University of Vermont. He seems to me one of those rare people who really sees the world with wide-open eyes, and is insightful and thoughtful about a wide range of fun topics.

[6] What are you reading now?

“Natural Acts” by David Quammen and “Reef Madness” by David Dobbs.

[7] When I was a child, I wanted to be…

An astronomer, a veterinarian, a writer, an illustrator… I loved everything. I think the unifying theme was that I wanted to do something where you have to observe and then interpret what you see, though I wasn’t aware at the time that that was driving me.

[8] What advice would you give someone just starting out in your field?

Do what you are passionate about and don’t forget why you are committed to it, so that during those frustrating times when all your experiments fail you can take a step back and remember the bigger picture. I would also add that its good to remain creative—don’t get locked into a specific area of inquiry just because it is comfortable. Focus is good, but having some open-mindedness thrown in will allow you to really blossom and answer some questions no one else has thought of.

[9] If the NSF surprised you with a $2 million grant tomorrow, what would you spend it on?

Wow—I wish! One thing I might spend it on is trying to improve our understanding of how the plant immune system evolves in tandem with changes in the environment. The immune system has to evolve not only to deal with myriad pathogens and herbivores, but also to function well in a particular physical environment, with specific light levels, moisture levels, etc. But within a plant’s genome there are constraints as well: conflicts among genes can cause genetic problems analogous to autoimmunity, thus perhaps constraining the kinds of adaptations plants can tolerate. So, if I had that $2 million from NSF, I would design projects to clarify and model the complexities of the selective forces that drive immune system evolution. I would also aim to incorporate into this an understanding of how plant pathogens and herbivores co-evolve with the plant communities they depend on.

[10] Why do you do science? What inspires you?

I love complexity and the challenge of finding connections and intricate relationships. Sharing that knowledge (and more importantly, the tools to get there) with others through teaching and mentorship is icing on the cake—one is not complete without the other.

Originally published February 22, 2010

Tags biotechnology genetics research

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