Microscopic research with a macroscopic impact: an undergraduate aspires to improve global health through biochemistry research
About 795 million —roughly one out of nine people on Earth— suffer from chronic undernourishment, according to the World Food Programme.
What’s the root of this problem? The high cost of chemical fertilizers.
Plants, just like humans, need nourishment to grow and rely on nutrients supplied by farmers in the form of fertilizer. But these fertilizers are typically unaffordable for small farmers in under-developed countries such as sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, resulting in poverty and hunger from very low crop yields.
Dominique Gardner, a junior majoring in biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Science, is an aspiring doctor with a concern for global health. She has spent the past year working in the lab of her advisor Dennis Dean, the J.B. Stroobants Professor of Biotechnology. His research team’s ultimate goal is to help lessen the world’s hunger problem.
Only select types of crop, such as legume crops, are able to self-fertilize with the help of soil microorganisms in a process known as biological nitrogen fixation. These plants have a symbiotic relationship with bacteria in the soil that can convert nitrogen from the air into usable nitrogen necessary for plant growth. Major cereal crops like corn and wheat are unable to form symbiosis with bacteria that fix nitrogen and need the addition of chemically synthesized nitrogen fertilizers to increase yields.
In the lab, Gardner works with genes and proteins of the nitrogen-fixing bacteria, Azotobacter vinelandii, to discover the ways its nitrogenase enzyme, an enzyme responsible for the reduction of nitrogen to a useable form, is put together and activated by over 30 different proteins in the cell. Gardner uses a biological and genetic approach in her research to look for genes in the bacteria’s DNA that are required for such plants to fix nitrogen.
The potential for plants to be genetically engineered to thrive without the need for expensive, synthetic fertilizers is great with this research.
“If one can truly understand DNA and the connections it has with other genes, proteins, and enzymes the possibilities to improve global health are endless,” Gardner said. “To think of a world that would no long suffer from hunger with just the right combination of DNA, genes and proteins, is phenomenal.”
It all comes back to DNA. Dominique’s interest in nutritional biochemistry and a plant-based diet spiked her desire to enter the health field, but the driving force that has sustained her interest and specifically made her want to be an oncologist is her family’s long history with cancer.
“Partaking in a career that could allow me to pair my interest in nutrition with my passion for cancer research would be a profession I would be devoted to indefinitely,” said Gardner. Her current research techniques allow her the opportunity to use the same techniques she may use as an Oncologist.
“It is amazing thinking that the DNA I handle day-to-day, in the right organization, can code for many of functions that can change the world today and for future generations,” Gardner said.
Q&A: Meet Dominique
Hometown: Charlotte, North Carolina
What interests you most about your research?
As a biochemistry major, I love that I have the opportunity to apply what I’ve learned in classes to real-life research. Knowing that my research, which deals with such microscopic materials, has the potential to create a macroscopic effect has continuously been a compelling phenomenon to wrap my head around.
What have been some of the most difficult aspects of your research?
Minor set backs in research that require me to repeat a specific laboratory procedure multiple times has been difficult. Especially when multiple factors can play a role in whether the procedure will be executed correctly or not.
What do you think others should know about science and/or scientific research?
Others should understand that research not only takes a long time to be completed but the path towards completion is not a linear one. Along the way there are many changes in direction and rough patches. This is why groundbreaking research not only takes time but unwavering commitment.
What are your ultimate career goals?
I hope to become a plant based Oncologist, who will specialize in the treatment of cancers by using both holistic and conventional medical approaches, emphasizing the individual needs of each patient.
Favorite hobby outside of school?
I love to watch documentaries about outer space and listen to music.
Article written by Maggie Hutzel while participating in ENGL 4824: Science Writing in Spring 2017 as part of a collaboration between Fralin and the Department of English at Virginia Tech.