Biology seminar discusses rare transgenic organism

Biology seminar discusses rare transgenic organism

Students and faculty learned about the nature of a transgenic species of parasitic plants in a biology seminar on Feb. 15.

The seminar — part of the Ecology, Evolution and Organismal Biology series — featured biology professor Dr. Joel McNeal’s presentation, titled “Using DNA sequencing to understand the evolution of the parasitic vine genus Cuscuta.”

The presentation explored research and data collected by McNeal on the evolution and ecology of a local parasitic plant species found in the Appalachian mountains of north Georgia.

McNeal said that the parasitic plant — genus Cuscuta, or “dodder” in layman’s terms — is a local organism that attaches directly to other plants to extract nutrients. McNeal hopes that Cuscuta can serve as a research model for the evolution of parasitism.

The Cuscuta plant serves as a rare example of an organism that is capable of horizontal gene transfer, an event in which the genetic material of one organism is transferred into an unrelated organism. This classification marks Cuscuta as one of few naturally-occurring “transgenic” organisms, a term that typically refers to human-mediated gene transfer.

Most of McNeal’s data was gathered through field research by undergraduate students involved in the directed methods and directed study research courses. There were also several volunteers, as well as students involved in the Honors College.

“I usually take students along for field work in Georgia and Alabama, and students perform much of the lab work for my research,” McNeal said.

“My central purpose was to demonstrate how my research at KSU has used a combination of field work, lab work, greenhouse experiments, DNA sequencing, and computational biology to address those questions [about Cuscuta],” McNeal said.

Studying Cuscuta could help scientists understand broad questions pertaining to biofuel synthesis, genome evolution, horizontal gene transfer, ecology, speciation and population biology.

McNeal attributed much of his field research success to graduate student Brandy Rogers, who is pursuing a master’s degree in integrative biology as well as her own research project on the Cuscuta.

For more information on the Ecology, Evolution and Organismal Biology seminar series, visit its page on the KSU website.

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