Dr. Benildo de los Reyes’ Functional Genomics Lab
Dr. Benildo de los Reyes, Professor of Molecular Genetics and cooperating faculty member of the Department of Molecular and Biomedical Sciences, arrived at the University of Maine in 2004. He runs a functional genomics lab, in which he uses plants as a model system to understand genetic regulatory networks that allow plants to adapt to various environmental conditions. Specifically, his lab looks at effects of low temperature stress and dehydration as well as disease causing microorganisms and insect herbivores.
With an interest in molecular plant genetics and the tools to effectively explore them, this lab is motivated and well equipped to contribute to the growing pool of knowledge in the world of molecular genetics. While advancing his own research, Dr. de los Reyes is currently advising four graduate students, and hosting an international researcher from the Philippines.
“An emerging paradigm within agricultural breeding practices is actually going back to wild species to obtain some of the genetic background that has been lost through the centuries of breeding practices.” -Myles Butler
Myles Butler, currently pursuing a master’s degree in Botany and Plant Pathology, is working in Dr. de los Reyes’ lab. He was inspired to pursue a graduate degree after taking Dr. de los Reyes’ Principles of Genetics course during his undergraduate studies.
Butlers project intends to reveal cellular mechanisms that provide resistance within potatoes to both the disease late blight and infestation of a common pest, the aphid. He describes his approach as “a no stone left unturned” approach, trying to identify key genetic signatures within the potato that could contribute to resistance or an absence of signatures that could be associated with susceptibility.
In order to do so, Butler is exploring regulatory networks that modulate a cell’s activity in response to a pathogen. A technique utilized for this project is RNA-seq, which enables him to generate genetic sequences, allowing for the identification of unique genes. This technique allows for scientists to see every gene that is being expressed within a plant at a given point, which is important for comparing between time periods and conditions.
“A common theme in Dr. de los Reyes’ research is to characterize the wild species that show these traits of resistance to abiotic or biotic stresses and trying to integrate these traits into the cultivars so we can have much stronger resistance and stress tolerant plants in agriculture.” –Myles Butler
Ai Kitazumi, a PhD student also working under Dr. de los Reyes, started her undergraduate degree program at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor before coming to the University of Maine where she is pursuing her graduate degree.
Kitazumi’s research project is relatively new, ambitious and aims to understand the evolution of regulatory networks during domestication. Using wild species of common crop plants, mainly rice and potatoes, she is looking at what kinds of genes were left behind during domestication that are responsible for dealing with environmental stress responses.
Although the study of molecular genetics is highly specific, it can be translated into our everyday lives through agriculture. Rice is an excellent model system for scientists to use for research because of its small and well-categorized genome, which makes genetic modification easier.
“What I like about my research is that I’m trained for many purposes…I used to just look at one gene…what the function of it is, how the gene responds, what does its sequence mean. Now I have been trained to profile 30,000 genes at the same time…I have fun trying to keep each genes specific story intact when looking at a large number of genes.” –Ai Kitazumi.
During domestication of common crop species, genes are selected for a variety of purposes, such as palatability and shape, and by doing so, genes are left behind that are useful in other ways. A focus in Dr. de los Reyes’ lab is looking at genes that facilitate resistance to stress and disease. Wild species are stronger in this aspect; the cultivated plants need pesticides and the use of fertilizers. If these genes that were left in the past were reintroduced into the genome of these species, there could be a lesser need for pesticides and fertilizers in our cultivation process.
Kitazumi recently completed a highly competitive two-month long International Collaborative Research Fellowship Award at the National Institute of Genetics at Mishima, Shizuoka, Japan.
Jasper Alpuerto came to the University of Maine from the Philippines after meeting Dr. de los Reyes, who at the time was on his sabbatical leave from UMaine. Majoring in agronomy with a focus in plant breeding in his undergraduate studies, Jasper was intrigued by Dr. de los Reyes research which inspired him to apply to graduate school at UMaine.
His current research is a follow-up of a previous project done by Ananya Mukherjee involving a gene, vacuolar-processing enzyme (VPE), which is found to be involved in a plants defense response during aphid feeding and late blight infection. He is using a reverse genetic approach to study Arabidopsis thaliana, a common model species, in order to clarify the role of VPE in response to aphid feeding. Alpuerto plans on using his knowledge in molecular biology and genomics in order to continue his work in applied breeding practices.
“I think we are in need of another Green revolution… the population is increasing and the land is decreasing, we need food everyday, and I want to be a part of the community that produces food for everyone…” –Jasper Alpuerto