Wolf Frommer (far left) was working nights and weekends at hospitals, gathering experience for a medical career, when a lecture on plant genetics by Peter Starlinger, a giant in transposon studies, changed his course. Inspired and fascinated, Frommer gathered “all of his courage” and asked for a project in Starlinger’s lab at the University of Köln in Germany. After a successful academic career in Germany, Frommer sought new adventures, ultimately landing at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California. Frommer aims to help people through his plant-science research, which currently focuses on how pathogens can target sugar transport in plants. Jumping genes also captured the imagination of Frommer’s coauthor Thomas Brutnell, of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri, who had similar plans about medical school before attending a lecture on transposons. Brutnell now studies the evolution of more efficient C4 photosynthesis, in the hopes of optimizing the process for bioenergy and food production. Brutnell is developing BrachyBio, where high school students help research plant genetics by screening mutants during biology class. In this month’s Critic, read more about how investing in plant research could help buffer our future against food and energy shortages.
Rochelle Buffenstein stumbled into naked mole-rat research during graduate school at the University of Cape Town, when she helped her advisor, Jenny Jarvis, collect the rodents from their underground dens in Kenya. Early in her career, she learned that the rodents are uniquely adapted to a subterranean existence, with almost no need for vitamin D. Buffenstein’s current projects use naked mole-rats to understand the physiology of aging. Unlike mice, naked mole-rats live for decades, and never succumb to cancer or heart attacks. When a 30-year-old mole rat dies, “we don’t really know what killed it,” says Buffenstein. Jarvis introduced Buffenstein to Thomas Park, who had switched from the neuroscience of birdsong to mole-rat research after encountering the rodents at the zoo. Park noticed regularly spaced hairs—just 10 rows of 10—on the rat’s backs. “I knew the pattern meant something,” on otherwise naked rats, says Park, who found the hairs were exquisitely sensitive to being stroked. Being blind, “they don’t see the probe coming,” Park chuckles. Park has investigated the rats’ insensitivity to pain induced by capsaicin and their tolerance for very low oxygen levels. Read more about the amazing physiology of naked mole-rats in their feature, “Underground Supermodels."
Inspiration for Ruth Padel’s latest book, The Mara Crossing, came to her while she paddled a kayak downriver in Laos. In the middle of researching her book examining tiger conservation efforts, Tigers in Red Weather, she was struck by the idea of movement and migration. Floating downriver, she had a glimmer of how the whole of life is movement. A renowned poet, Padel first embarked on an academic career, comparing the metaphors for emotion and disease in ancient Greek medicine and poetry at the University of Oxford, but forsook academia to write poetry. A descendant of Charles Darwin, Padel mixed poetry, science, and biography for Darwin—A Life in Poems. Discussing Darwin’s experiments using a clothespin to measure the force a root exerts as it pushes through earth, Padel explains, “I think the way plants move is the way imagination moves—you don’t know where it’s going.” That glimmer in Laos resulted in a book in which human, animal, and cell migrations mingle and contemplations of bird migrations spark poetry imagining John James Audubon’s origins in Haiti and ocean passage to America. Read more about The Mara Crossing in this month’s Reading Frames, and find an excerpt online.