Jan 182007
Authors: Brett Okamoto

Jesse French has worked on a project that, when all said and done, will have covered the span of at least four years and required about $4 million in funds.

Not bad for a CSU student in his first year of study.

Last semester, French was one of a group of honors biology students in their freshman year looking to make a contribution to a potentially groundbreaking research project involving genetic structures of tomato plants.

“It’s been a cool opportunity to be exposed to a really relevant issue inside the science world,” said French, an animal science major. “I don’t know if it’s an opportunity that most students have and it’s been important to us.”

The project is complex, to say the least, and involves the study of complicated genetic structures and their interactions with each other. The overall goal of the project, however, is simple.

“I can even explain it to my mother,” said professor Pat Bedinger, the creator of the experiment. “The basic idea is to uncover how closely-related species keep from mating with each other.”

In other words, many people have seen the domestic tomato plant growing in their garden. On the other hand, no one has seen a fundamentally super-domestic tomato plant that has picked up characteristics from one of the nine types of wild tomato plants.

The reason for that is because the domestic type knows to reject the pollen of the wild types. Bedinger wants to find out how.

“When I became a full-time professor at CSU I had the opportunity to decide how I wanted to spend the rest of my career,” Bedinger said. “It’s a question in biology that was very important but poorly understood. That’s always the two things you want when deciding on a research project.”

The end results of the experiment could have an unlimited impact on the science domain, but there are two primary goals already set in place.

“Wild species have good genes in them that we’d like to figure out how to get into the domestic plants,” Bedinger said. “They are more resistant to disease. Another concern is that pollen from genetically modified crops like we grow in the U.S. will somehow get transmitted to wild species. They’re really worried about that in Europe.”

Bedinger proposed her idea to the National Science Foundation – an idea, she said, that went over well from the start. Last fall, after a few preliminary tests were run to prove that the experiment had a potential for success, Bedinger was awarded her grant.

She asked for $5 million over five years. She got $3.9 over four.

“Normally a grant isn’t as long as the one we got,” Bedinger said. “What we got was really good. We’re hoping to renew it eventually. I’m hoping I’ll study this for the rest of my career.”

Even before she was awarded the grant, Bedinger was planning on how she would deal with keeping the current love of her life – teaching – and the enormous project on the horizon. The answer is what has now given students like French the opportunity of a lifetime: she would combine them.

“I’ve always loved teaching these students,” Bedinger said. “I always knew that if I could find the right project they could do something like this. I’m hoping that this is it.”

While the main experiment is the tomatoes, it seems as though a secondary experiment has evolved into seeing just how much young students can contribute to a project of this size. With one semester in the books, things seem to be going fine for both.

“It’s crazy to think that what we’re doing, they’re using for an actual part of the whole process,” French said. “It’s definitely an incentive to work harder.”

Staff writer Brett Okamoto can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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