By Sharon Pound
Deep in the tropical forests of Brazil grows the tree Copaifera langsdorfii, also known as the “diesel tree.” Unlike the North American maples that produce sap for syrup, this tree can be tapped for oil with characteristics similar to diesel fuel.
Because these trees are so hard to access, researchers at UT are exploring ways to transfer genes from the diesel tree into more common plants, such as tobacco. The goal is to economically produce renewable biofuels to eventually replace existing petroleum-derived fuels.
Jasmine John, an undergraduate researcher in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, is investigating a gene promoter that activates the diesel tree’s metabolic production of a diesel-like chemical called “sesquiterpenes.”
“Gene promoters activate the gene and determine what it will do,” John explains. “By transferring this gene promoter, we may be able to induce genetic expression in the tobacco plant. If that’s possible, then we may be able to duplicate the metabolism pathway and form novel biofuel plants.”
Originally a premed student in the college’s food science and technology department, John was introduced to research early in her academic career. Her first project focused on discovering a method for protecting vegetables from E. coli by blanching them to kill the bacteria while maintaining flavor and nutrition.
“I came into research thinking it was all test-tube stuff. I wasn’t really interested in plants. But I quickly learned that this was a whole new world,” John says. “These experiences have given me a second option in plant biotechnology. It was an unexpected change; I’m into plants now.”
As a senior, John was hired for a research position in the lab of Neal Stewart, professor of plant science and co-director of the Tennessee Plant Research Center. She started out on simple tasks such as sterilizing lab equipment and making media and agar for other researchers.
John’s work ethic and curiosity quickly caught the attention of PhD student Blake Joyce, who recruited her to join the diesel tree project. She helped perform experiments with cloning promoters and prepare genes for a process called “genome-walking”—a relatively fast and reliable approach to sequence and clone DNA adjacent to a known region.
It wasn’t long until John began her own project exploring the most abundant sesquiterpenes in the diesel tree. So far, she’s been able to isolate and clone the terpene synthase promoter (TSP) 1, which will potentially be used to transform the tobacco plant. John reports TSP3 was also isolated and analyzed, but contained some nonfunctional parts, while TSP5 has been unsuccessful so far.
John’s research was recently recognized at UT’s Exhibition of Undergraduate Research and Creative Achievement (EURēCA). Her award reflects the direct impact of working with strong mentors.
“Blake Joyce helped me become an independent researcher,” she says. “He’s shown me what to do, then let me do it. He’s easy to talk to and would go over things again and again until it made sense. That way, I was able to keep learning.”
From Joyce’s perspective, it was easy to relate to the undergraduates.
“Jasmine and I shared a similar background. Neither of us started out in the microbiology or genetics world,” he says. “I remember when things started making sense to me, and I could see that in her. When I first started research as an undergraduate student, it made me feel legitimate, like I was actually becoming a scientist; someone who was already using his degree.”
John recommends every undergraduate should get involved with research. “That’s how you learn. It helps you understand principles you learned in class and gives you hands-on experiences and the opportunity to apply critical thinking,” she says.
After graduation, John plans to work for a year as a research technician on Joyce’s next project delving into another plant called Pittosporum—otherwise known as the petroleum nut tree. From there, she plans to pursue either a graduate degree in biotechnology or a medical degree. Her research experiences have drastically expanded her options, and for that she’s extremely grateful.