WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Purdue University biochemist Joe Ogas set out to determine why pickle-shaped swellings developed on some laboratory plant roots. Instead, he stumbled upon a biochemical on/off switch that could help researchers better understand cancer and, at the same time, develop new oil crops.
"We were looking at genetically modified Arabidopsis plants, trying to understand root development," Ogas says. "What we found was something totally different that will help us understand how plant cells change identity. It will help explain how seeds throw a biochemical switch that turns them into seedlings."
Because the basic biochemistry behind cell development is similar in both plants and animals, Ogas' work attracted the attention of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NIH this spring awarded him a five-year, $1.1 million grant to pursue the biochemistry behind a single gene he discovered and named the "PICKLE gene" -- the gene that, when mutated, causes the root swellings. The results may help human health researchers understand and fight cancer, a disease in which cellular developmental controls go awry.
Ogas's work was published in a November 1999 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Based on his and other scientists' research, Ogas says plants depend on two biochemical switches as they change from seed to adult. He found that in germinating seeds with normal PICKLE genes, one switch turns on while the other turns off. The first switch turns on the development of characteristics for a mature plant, initiating root and shoot development. At the same time, the plant with the normal PICKLE gene produces a protein called chromatin remodeling factor, which flips the biochemical off-switch that stops the expression of embryo characteristics. The two switches operate independently.