Studying an unusual shrub (Eastern leatherwood) and the beginning of my HiLIFE grant

Lignin and its chemical properties are, for the most part, fully taken advantage of in most plant and tree species: it’s a molecule that occurs in the area between neighboring cells, inside the cell wall, and generally provides mechanical support and supports water transport. But this looks a little different in leatherwood, a small, understory shrub that lacks lignin in places where there are normally large amounts in other species, such as silver birch or Norway spruce. This allows its branches to bend well past what would easily break a spruce tree. Interestingly, we still do not understand why leatherwood evolved like this (other than the fact that being extremely bendy is obviously a fun skill).

Lignin, in this sense, can be thought of as one of the many Bermuda triangles of the plant world. While much of plant biology remains unknown, lignin is particularly interesting because how and why lignin is distributed, especially in leatherwood, remains a mystery.

My name is Dayla and, while I’m originally from Austin, Texas in the United States, I have lived in California, West Virginia, New York City, and now Helsinki. One of the reasons that I was drawn to the University of Helsinki is because of the access to plant science research, ranging from stomatal development to lignin formation.

Before entering the master’s program here, I was already considering whether a PhD in plant biology could be the right path for me, but I was scared. Was this really what I wanted? A decade of mass-murdering weeds for the sake of science?

The short answer, I think, is yes. The slightly longer answer is that I have been lucky enough to work with HiLIFE to spend four months exploring lignin and its many roles in leatherwood, poplar and Norway spruce. Over the course of this traineeship, I will have the opportunity to see how trees fit into the wider world of plant biology, learn new techniques (including how to pick up 20 micron thick pieces of wood using only a drop of water), and explore the possibility of a career in research.

In the past, I’ve worked with Arabidopsis roots to investigate genes responsible for growth and development. Now, with Kurt Fagerstedt’s group, I will have the opportunity to study a different facet of plant biology – what happens to a plant when one of its key macromolecules is modified.

However, the real main goal of this traineeship is to resolve the love–hate relationship that I have with lab refrigerators. They smell similar to how it feels to gag – that is to say, I gag every time I open one. Alas, this is where we store the true muscle of developing mutant plants, and the culprit of the smell: E. coli. This bacteria is partially responsible for the transformation of healthy, strong weeds, into sad, small plants that are no longer able to produce lignin properly.

Over the course of the next four months, I hope that I can either a) grow accustomed to the smell in the refrigerator or b) appreciate the importance of E. coli in plant molecular biology enough that it no longer bothers me.