by Todd Schwartz
|Memo to Central Casting: character
type for Reed plant physiologist in question could be somewhat
less swashbuckling Indiana Jones, minus the hat, whip, and evil
nemesis. And with better funding. Surround him with eager college
students and set scene hundreds of feet up a tree or deep in
the wilds of Mexico. Plot line: important science, mixed with
sense of adventure. Working title: David Dalton and the Temple
of Oxygen Toxicity.
You may have to wait for the moviefaculty
research isnt high on the Hollywood hot listbut you can always
read the script. It takes the form of numerous publications in the areas
of biological nitrogen fixation and oxygen toxicity in plants from beach
grass to sequoias.
Like every member of the Reed biology faculty, associate professor Dalton
is heavily invested in teaching and face time with students, and so sacrifices
some of the time (and grad student help) he might find to do research
at the typical graduate school. And like all Reed professors, he doesnt
mind a bit.
at Reed because I really enjoy working with bright, engaged students,
Dalton explains. Reed is a unique undergraduate institutionour
students expect a lot from themselves. We provide the atmosphere for meaningful
research and they come eager to do it. And I think doing faculty research
at Reed has a number of professional advantageswithout graduate
institution-style pressure, I can explore certain projects briefly, some
can be pretty wild ideas, and if they dont work out it wont
be a career-ending situation.
A lot of things have been working out lately for Dalton and his students.
One group has been studying stress physiology in tall trees. Trees have
stress, you ask? Whatbad day down at the photosynthesis plant? Well,
in a manner of speaking, yes. It turns out that big trees, those busy
oxygen-makers, suffer free-radical damage to their cells just like the
rest of us aging creatures.
Imagine the environment at the top of an old-growth forest canopy: baking
all day in the summer sun; dried by the wind; 70, 80, even 90 meters above
what little water may be in the ground. Stress in the upper reaches of
conifer country takes the form of drought and intense light. In summer
there is very little water at the tops of tall trees (and in case you
wonder how they get what there is all the way up to the top, they pull
it: evaporation from the leaf surfaces creates negative pressure inside
the tree, as low as minus 25 atmospheres at the very top).
The stress causes oxidative damage.
Trees have several defenses, and Dalton and his students are among the
first to study those defenses at the top of the canopy. Dalton and his
students have gone up there by climbingas high as 110 meters in
the redwood forestbut these days they have ample (and less death-defying)
access to the U.S. Forest Services Wind River Canopy Crane Research
Facility near Carson, Washington. So far they have discovered new information
about the biochemistry used by the trees to make antioxidants for protection.
Vitamins C and E, along with a host of other free-radical-scavenging enzymes
manufactured by the trees, help them fight the damage caused by the very
oxygen theyre happily churning out.
As noted, Dalton is always on the
lookout for ways to let his students mix science with adventure, and his
most recent work is no exception. He and a group of students are just
back from a trip far back into the mountains of southern Mexico, where
they were in search of an ancient kind of corn that might make its own
nitrogen fertilizer out of thin air. Self-fertilizing cornthat sound
you just heard was a roomful of Monsanto executives dropping their jaws.
What Dalton found was an Indian village where they have been growing maize
for centuries, without any fertilizer, on the same patch of tired soil.
When the Reed group was there, the plants were already 15 feet tall and
exceptionally healthy. Dalton theorizes that there may be a type of bacteria
growing on the plants that allows them to convert nitrogen from the air
into usable fertilizer. You heard it here first.
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