Simple Scene, Complex Science

I was walking to the Berkey Creamery the other day and could see a chaotic intertwining of sorghum plants with paper bags over the plant flower heads inside one of the Crop and Soil Sciences greenhouses. I liked the way they looked. I took a picture. But as always my curiosity gets the best of me.

I knew that some sort of breeding experiment had taken place and at the end of the season now these plants were about to be removed to make way for a new experiment. Checking the tag on the door indicated that this work was being done as part of the agricultural research of Dr. Surinder Chopra, Associate Professor of Maize Genetics in the College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State.

Back at my office a quick email exchange with Dr. Chopra revealed the title of the research project of which these corn plants were a part:

Flavonoids Phytoalexins in Sorghum-Colletotrichum interaction

Dr. Surinder was kind enough to provide some additional information and with a little thought I was able to understand a little of what was happening.

Phytoalexins are low molecular weight compounds synthesized by plants during biotic and abiotic stress. Biotic stressors could be things like insects and diseases. Abiotic stressors would be non-living elements of an ecosystem—drought, heat, and cold for example.

Dr. Chopra is interested in understanding the genetic pathway of biosynthesis of these compounds when plants are stressed. These compounds help make plants more resistant. The research also involves transferring resistance from sorghum to maize.

The science of this work is far beyond my passing interest in the visual aspects of the work. But it is easy to see how important it is in a world where demand for food continues to grow and biotic and abiotic stress grows as well.

I’m always amazed at how serious the back story is to many of the seemingly innocuous scenes I run across. I never did get to the Berkey Creamery that day.


pitchertaker said…
You people at the Penn State Ag dept are amazing -- you've figured out how to grow paper bags.

Ed W said…
Great post. I drive by those greenhouses on my way to work and often wonder what is going on in there. I guess I always thought they grew flowers or something. I didn't realize the science was so complex behind this stuff.

Steve Williams said…
pitchertaker: If it was anyone else making that comment I would think you were making fun.

In a way, we do work on ways to grow the stuff that makes better paper bags...

ed w; There are so many things going on it still amazes me after all these years. I'll try and share more of it as time goes on.

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