Two Dartmouth professors win at BioArts competition

by Erin Lee | 1/25/16 7:51pm

In addition to innovative and influential discovery, scientific research can also generate stunning images, biology professor Mary Lou Guerinot said. Two Dartmouth research labs, led by Guerinot and fellow biology professor Thomas Jack, proved this in their 2015 BioArt competition wins for their magnified photos of Arabidopsis thaliana, a flowering plant.

Hosted by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, the annual competition aims to highlight the beauty of biological research and bring images out of the laboratory and into the public eye, according to the FASEB website. Among the 11 winners were images featuring chick embryos, cancer cells, bacterial colonies and representations of brain activity.

Guerinot said her team, which includes biology professor Tracy Punshon and graduate student Suzana Car, studies how plants take up metals from the soil. Plants and seeds are the major source of micronutrients for most organisms, and Guerinot’s lab is looking at how increasing metal uptake in plants can alleviate nutritional deficiencies, she said. Higher concentrations of iron in rice, for example, could help solve iron deficiency, she said.

Guerinot said she identifies genes that contribute to metal intake and examines natural variations and mutations.

To conduct these experiments, Guerinot relies on synchrotrons — particle accelerators that emit high energy X-ray beams that cause the metals in the plants to fluoresce. Synchrotrons are located at specific facilities run by the United States Department of Energy that her team travels to, including the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource in Stanford, California and Advanced Photon Source in Lemont, Illinois. Researchers submit proposals competing for 72-hour blocks of time with the synchrotrons, she said.

During these limited time frames at the facility, Guerinot’s team will usually stay up all night to generate about 30 images. They decided to submit an image from one of these sessions to the BioArt competition, she said. Car delivered the winning BioArt image at the National Synchrotron Light Source in Upton, New York.

The photo shows a heat map of zinc levels in an Arabidopsis leaf, with high concentrations of zinc revealed in white spots throughout the leaf. This was the first time her lab has entered an image into a science photography competition, Guerinot said.

“It was a great coincidence that two people at Dartmouth won,” she added.

The image from Jack’s team also features Arabidopsis, showing activated genes in young flower buds that determine which cells will form specific parts of the flower. Jack collaborated with California Institute of Technology biology professor Elliot Meyerowitz and Nat Prunet, a Caltech postdoctoral researcher and former Dartmouth graduate student. The image also placed ninth in the Nikon Small World photomicrography competition.

Jack said his lab looks at flower development, how genes determine the formation of organs and where boundaries form between different cells.

Prunet, who previously worked in Jack’s lab, took the photo with a confocal microscope, showing fluorescent areas in the bud expressing different genes. Green areas will develop into stamens, the male organs of the plant, and red areas will become pistils, the female organs, Prunet said. The gene represented by red suppresses the masculinizing gene in green, allowing the female organs to form, he said.

Jack added that this particular experiment was done to study the degree to which these genes overlap and determine how many cells expressed both genes.

He said the photos his lab generates are usually meant to be published in scientific papers, but they decided to submit this particular photo to competitions because of its “striking” quality.

Prunet said he enjoys the visual aspect of microscopy and recently became interested in the intersection between art and science.

“There’s an artistic part of my job which I really like, even though it’s science,” he said.

Punshon wrote in an email that these microimages provide a unique glimpse into the biochemistry of plants, inspiring both researchers and the general public. She added that the team is looking for more avenues to showcase similar images that might otherwise not be published.

“The images we generate are often very beautiful, and they show a dimension that we don’t see in life,” Punshon said. “It also engages non-scientists and lay people to the beauty of the natural world and to science as a way of describing it.”

Guerinot said she appreciates the publicity the competition has generated for her research.

“The whole idea of BioArt is to show people science can be beautiful,” she said. “It draws people’s attention and makes them question — you look at a leaf and you don’t really think about where the metals are, but we do.”