September 9, 2009

Professor Manuel Ospina-Giraldo and 5 Students Coauthor Study Published in Nature Magazine

Twelve students have been involved in research that could help control tomato and potato blight

Manuel Ospina-Giraldo, assistant professor of biology, has coauthored a study that appeared online today in the journal Nature.  Five of his student research assistants — neuroscience major Karlyn Horn ’10 (Cincinnati, Ohio) and biology graduates Megan Chawner ’08, John Griffith ’09, Jessica McWalters ’09, and Lauren Seyer ’08 – are included as coauthors.

Ospina-Giraldo is part of a large international research team that has decoded the genome of Phytophthora infestans, the notorious organism that triggered the Irish potato famine in the mid-19th century and now threatens this season’s tomato and potato crops across much of the U.S.

“Our most ambitious goal is to figure out the molecular mechanisms by which this pathogen infects potatoes and causes the infamous ‘late blight’ disease. Once we have identified such mechanisms, we can attempt to devise strategies that can be successful at controlling the development of the disease,” he says.

The study reveals that the organism boasts an unusually large genome size — more than twice that of closely related species — and an extraordinary genome structure, which together appear to enable the rapid evolution of genes, particularly those involved in plant infection. These data expose an unusual mechanism that enables the pathogen to outsmart its plant hosts and may help researchers unlock new ways to control this enduring and highly destructive pathogen.

“My research has focused on the identification of genes coding for enzymes that can degrade the plant cell wall,” says Ospina-Giraldo. “This research mostly entails computational analysis and bioinformatics [the application of information technology to molecular biology], complemented with what is called ‘wet-lab experiments,’ where we look for experimental evidence that supports the computational predictions.”

Ospina-Giraldo has used 12 student research assistants on the project. Their participation has been funded in part by a $2,130,497 National Science Foundation grant, Lafayette’s EXCEL Scholars program, and student scholarships from the David M. Nalven ’88 Summer Research Fellowship and the Roger Newton ’72 Research Fund.

“I think our biology students must become familiar with the scientific method and its practice.  Regardless of their career goals (life or health sciences, policy studies, etc.), they should have a minimum understanding of how the scientific method works in real life. A project with ‘real world’ applications can be very appealing to them and facilitate the understanding of how scientific research is conducted,” he says.

Other students who have been involved in the research are biology majors Kristen Darragh ’11 (Orefield, Pa.), Julie Ehrlich ’11 (Southport, Conn.), Gabriela Firak ’11 (Manville, N.J.), Christina Mingora ’11 (Bethlehem, Pa.), and Corey Shea ’11 (Hanson, Mass.); neuroscience major Emma Laird ’10 (Westfield, N.J.); and biology graduate Jonathan Schimmel ’09.

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