Genomics on the Farm: Breeding A More Resistant Rice

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Photo courtesy the Jaiswal Lab

Tonight Noor Al-Bader of OSU’s Molecular and Cell Biology department joins us on the show to discuss her doctoral research concerning genomics and plant breeding.  Working in Dr. Pankaj Jaiswal’s lab, Noor deals with large data sets of genetic information concerning varieties of Rice and Chia. The goal of her study is to determine which genes relate to the expression of traits implicated in stress resistance and nutritional content. Often the varieties of these crops grown for their value to farmers are susceptible to environmental stressors such as high salinity in water, drought, and high temperatures. These environmental concerns unfortunately promise to be increasing concerns in many areas such crops are grown due to the increasing impact of climate change. Wild types are often hardier, and genetic studies of both types hold promise for producing a “happy medium” capable of producing high yield, nutritious rice and chia that is also highly prosperous under less than desirable environmental circumstances.  These new varieties are not produced via genetic modification in the lab, but bred on the farm, crossing strains generation after generation and recording the results with painstaking attention to detail- the old fashioned way. The contrast between the hands on work of horticulture and the hard science of genetics in the lab may seem a surprising pair, but in this case the genetics research is utilized to facilitate traditional methods of horticulture by simply speeding along a process that could normally take lifetimes. Just like in her research, Noor strives to have the best of both worlds.

But Noor wasn’t always interested in plant science. Always interested in finding ways to help people in need, she first considered helping those with swallowing disorders and speech impediments. Noor first attended university in the United States as a freshman, coming from Kuwait to take speech pathology courses at North Eastern in Boston. After realizing that she was more interested in pursuing a medical degree, Noor enrolled at Oregon State. However, there was a catch: In order to receive a scholarship from her home country to study abroad, Noor was required to take horticulture courses. Oregon State was on the list of approved schools because of this program, and Noor would be required to get a bachelors degree in plant science if she also wanted to prepare for medical school.

Several years and one master’s degree later (not to mention a brief stint in the fashion industry), Noor is two terms into a PhD program in Molecular and Cellular Biology. Having learned to code for computer programs along the way (an important skill in bioinformatics), and finding a love of teaching she didn’t know she had, Noor continues to do what she set out to her freshman year in Boston- to help people. Now she does this in the lab and in the field, where her love of hard science and her hard work meet. The discoveries in genomics that this sort of research hopes to achieve could help the world in a way  that researchers, farmers, and millions of people who depend on important crops like rice for their daily subsistence can surely appreciate.

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About Matt McConnell

Matt McConnell is from Midland, Michigan and received his undergraduate BS in Psychology and Philosophy at Central Michigan University. After graduating he spent several years in North Carolina. Most of this was at UNC working as a medical research lab assistant using mice as model organisms, but some of his work also involved cognitive research with Rhesus Macaques at a Duke University field site in Puerto Rico. Matt currently live in Corvallis, OR where he attends OSU as a graduate student in the History of Science master's program. He is taking Science Education as a related minor, with an emphasis in Free Choice Learning. His interests in History of Science and Science Education meet on the practice of Science Communication. Matt is currently co-host of the weekly radio show 'Inspiration Dissemination', in which graduate students discuss their personal journeys. Inspiration Dissemination is open to all graduate students and airs every Sunday evening at 7pm on 88.7 FM, KBVR Corvallis.