Sunny twist on climate – WEST AG INFORMATION NETWORK


Sunny turn on the climate

Undergraduate university in biotechnology and plant genomics major unlocking high-tech skills. For Tana Rayburn, creating that first GM crop as an undergraduate in the University of Idaho’s biotechnology program was like magic.

Students like Rayburn pursuing a bachelor’s degree in plant biotechnology and genomics from the U of I have the opportunity to learn skills more commonly taught at much larger schools or in graduate programs.

The U of I program covers general molecular techniques and gives students a broad experience to help them pursue careers in a range of cutting-edge fields.

In Rayburn’s case, she was so well prepared by the undergraduate program, which she completed in December 2020, that she was allowed to enter directly into a doctorate at Washington State University. program.

In her PhD program, she studies metabolic pathways to better understand the regulation of flavin production in stress responses.

Rayburn admits she was once an opponent of biotechnology, before learning the details of science and the possibilities it holds to help society meet some of the biggest challenges ahead.

Before enrolling at the U of I, she earned an associate’s degree in botany at a community college. She had her first experience of genetic transformation during her first semester on campus, in her Plant Tissue Culture course.

Using Agrobacterium, which can alter the genome of a plant in the wild to make the environment more welcoming to themselves, she created tissue cultures from leaf cuttings, including inserting a gene of interest. This gene causes seedlings soaked in a special chemical cocktail to turn blue.

“This course in plant tissue culture showed me that you can do amazing things with plants that I never thought possible,” Rayburn said.

Rayburn then worked as an undergraduate researcher with Joseph Kuhl, an associate professor in the Department of Plant Sciences at the U of I. In Kuhl’s lab, she made transgenic potato plants weekly.

“It was wild. I remember calling my mom and saying, ‘I’m going to make GMOs,’ and it was a wildly exciting thing,” Rayburn said. “I think it’s a really unique degree program they offer. I really feel ready to do a number of different projects.

U of I biotechnology and plant genomics undergraduates learn the ropes of scientific techniques such as gene silencing, gene cloning, and CRISPR. Plants are no longer seen simply as food sources. They are now used to make biofuels and even pharmaceuticals.

“We provide students with the curriculum, academics, training and experience in one of the major areas of plant science, namely biotechnology,” Kuhl said.

Plant biotechnology and genomics was once offered as one of four areas of focus under a single major – sustainable cultivation in landscape systems – before the former Department of Plant, Soil and Entomological Sciences at the University of the Island be trifurcated to create a stand-alone Department of Plant Sciences in 2018.

From this department, the university also established separate departments for Soil and Water Systems, Entomology, Plant Pathology, and Nematology.

Kuhl believes students weren’t fully aware of their options under the old format. Enrollment for the new degree has grown from five to six students under the old format to 15 to 20 students now that it is offered as an independent major.

This growth has put U of I on the radars of major employers, such as JR Simplot Co., who once looked to larger schools such as the University of California-Davis for biotech talent.

“They now realize that the U of I produces high-quality students, and they’re hiring,” Kuhl said.

Allan Caplan, an associate professor of plant science who also teaches courses for the biotechnology and plant genomics major, pointed out that the major teaches skills that intersect with other disciplines, such as human health.

“We have an active and functioning program to train people in these cutting-edge areas,” Caplan said. “They don’t have to go out of state. They can get a lot of what they can get anywhere else here.

Nina Clark earned a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology and biotechnology and microbiology at the U of I. A year ago, she began working as a science assistant involved in Simplot’s program which uses native gene editing of the potato genome to produce better and more resistant potatoes.

“Especially at the U of I, the biotechnology classes are taught so well and so thoroughly,” Clark said. “At Simplot, I understood the concepts so easily. It’s because I had done it before.

Although offered by the U of I’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Clark recommends the Biotechnology and Plant Genomics major to all students interested in understanding the science of human genetics.

“These classes and skills are what you’ll need if you’re going to medical — if you’re going to humanities at all,” Clark said. “Plants are the best model organisms we have.”

Mallory Antunez, who grew up in the Boise area, earned a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology and plant genomics from the U of I in 2019 before enrolling in a master’s program in biology at Southeast Missouri State University.

She had a significant head start over her classmates.

“I got to college and I was like, ‘Wow, this is a lot easier than I thought,'” Antunez said. “I was so well prepared for this. I was almost bored in graduate school because I had already done a lot of things.


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