Feb 292012
Authors: Bailey Constas

You say “potato,” but CSU biology professor Patricia Bedinger says “reproductive barriers in wild tomatoes.”

This is because Bedinger is researching the process of reproduction in wild tomatoes for the possibility of creating new types of tomatoes and potatoes that will be resistant to disease and wide varieties of environments.

And to further this research, Bedinger was awarded a $5.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation. She also received a $3.9 million grant five years ago.

Bedinger focuses on the reproductive and crossing processes between tomatoes and how they interact. Her research group has discovered during a cross, when pollen (the male tissue) is rejected by the pistils (the female tissue), it is the female’s decision whether to reject the pollen or not.

“I always like to hear that,” Bedinger said. “She can reject the species’ [pollen] if wrong. The pistil recognizes and says, ‘no stay away from my ovary,’ [then] mounts a response and makes it stop growing.”

The big question that sparked Bedinger’s interest in biology was to define a species, a topic of debate since Darwin.

“I was really interested in how species became reproductively isolated. We don’t know how that happens,” Bedinger said.

Bedinger looked at other species but found that wild tomatoes in particular can grow in extreme cold, dry and warm environments, and are exposed to bacteria and fungi –– making them resistant to many factors regular tomatoes succumb to.

However, wild tomatoes have reproductive barriers between species. A large focus of Bedinger’s research is to find ways to cross these wild tomatoes and then apply that science to potatoes.

“We love tomatoes, tomatoes make life good,” Bedinger said.“But we don’t depend on them.”

Bedinger explained that potatoes are a main source of calories in the world in Africa and other places. A family can grow a small lot of potatoes easier than growing corn or rice, which takes up larger plots of land and require more manual labor.

However, potatoes are easily susceptible to diseases and have a poor genetic base.

“We would like to surmount reproductive barriers between potatoes and wild tomatoes, beginning in the next five years,” Bedinger said.

Overcoming these barriers would lead to creating potatoes that are salt resistant (a concern given the increasing salt composition of soil), disease resistant, drought resistant and capable of withstanding extreme heat and cold.

Bedinger works with four other researchers from across the nation including Bruce McClure from the University of Missouri, Roger Chetelat at the University of California-Davis and a married couple from Indiana University, Leonie Moyle and Matt Hahn.

“I really like the people I work with. We’ve developed a trust and respect in the group,” Bedinger said. “It makes science fun, [we have] a lot of lofty goals, it’s really fun work.”

One of these researchers is Roger Chetelta, who received his Ph.D from UC-Davis and is the director of the Tomato Genetics Resource Center, a gene bank of stocks of tomatoes that supplies seeds of tomatoes for researchers and educators all over the world.

According to Chetelta, the research is focused on pollen factors that are important in reproductive barriers in tomatoes that prevent crosses between different species and on understanding the pollen factors and genes that are important on the male side and the female side.

“My point of view is it’s primarily a fundamental research project understanding how these reproductive barriers operate in nature. It has evolutionary implications but…also can be applied to real world… understanding at deeper level, overcome and access new changes can develop new varieties of tomatoes,” Chetelta said.

Chetelta said the highlight of working on this research, besides the scientific findings, was a three week trip in 2009 to Peru for fieldwork and to see the plants in their native environment.

“It’s been a really, really good group. Pat at CSU has been the leader of the group and she’s just done a great job of having regular group meetings and having everyone interact. Very bright and very nice people. I enjoyed interacting with other members of the group scientifically but also on a personal level,” Chetelta said.

Daniel Bush, the chair for the Department of Biology, believes the grant and level of research Bedinger and her colleagues are doing is creating a higher visibility of the department to the scientific community.

“This big grant for the work Pat is doing reflects well…on our department and is exciting for the department and colleagues to do well and drive research,” Bush said. “I think this kind of grant reflects well on how well the faculty in the department of biology is in their ability to attract outside funding for fundamental biological questions.”

Collegian writer Bailey Constas can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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