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UB biologists are hunting for the genes that help foxglove plants make medicinal compounds. Here, scientists insert promising foxglove genes into the leaves of a tobacco plant. If the tobacco plant starts producing the foxglove compounds or closely related molecules, it’s a sign that the research is on the right track.
Left to right: Zhen Q. Wang, assistant professor of biological sciences, is leading the project. The goal is to decipher how the foxglove plant Digitalis lanata makes compounds called cardenolides, which have pharmaceutical relevance. Lab members include PhD students Indu Raghavan and Emily Carroll, and undergraduate researcher Zahin Hossain, who has since graduated.
Carroll introduces foxglove genes into a tobacco plant. The syringe holds a solution of agrobacteria that helps to transfer the foreign genes into the leaves.
The focus is on injecting the solution into the undersides of the tobacco leaves, which have a larger number of pores called stomata.
Pinpointing the genes that plants use to produce medicinal compounds could enable scientists to explore faster, more efficient methods of manufacturing these substances, Wang says. This could include genetically engineering microbes to synthesize the drugs.
In a related project, Wang’s team is testing the hypothesis that foxglove plants release cardenolides as a defensive mechanism, in response to stress. Here, Raghavan injects a stress-inducing substance into the leaves of a foxglove plant.
After injecting a stress-inducing substance into a foxglove plant, Raghavan will analyze leaves to see whether the plant produced more cardenolides than usual under stress.
The darkened areas of the leaf are spots where the foxglove plant has absorbed the stress-inducing substance.
Published August 15, 2022