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Drew Lyon: Hello and welcome to the WSU week beat podcast. I’m your host, Drew Lyon, I want to thank you for joining me as we explore the world of small grains production and research at Washington State University. We have weekly discussions with researchers from WSU and the USDA-ARS to provide you with insights into the latest research on wheat and barley production. My guest today is Andrei Smertenko. He is a cell biologist at the Institute of Biological Chemistry in the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences. Andrei joined WSU almost five years ago. He’s originally from Ukraine, but worked for 17 years in the United Kingdom before coming to Pullman. Andrei wants to understand how cells respond to drought stress, and how we can harness processes inside cells to improve crop yields in arid climates. Hello Andrei.
Andrei Smertenko: Hi Andrew.
Drew Lyon: Say, it’s a long way from Ukraine to Pullman. What brought you here?
Andrei Smertenko: Well, I spent lots of time when I was a postdoctoral scientist in different labs learning basic aspects of cell biology. And then some point, I started to feel it might be very good to apply this knowledge for some agricultural problems. And WSU has a very long standing reputation in combining basic research with applied research, and when I was looking to start my own lab, I kind of felt it will be a really good place to apply my previous experience to real problems. I was expecting so that I could collaborate with scientists at WSU who are working crops. And indeed I have several very fruitful collaborations that allow me to apply my knowledge to solving problems like drought tolerance.
Drew Lyon: We are glad you found your way to Pullman from all the way overseas. We pulled years off and used genetic markers to identify varieties with better performance under drought. But you are more interested in cellular traits that may play a key role in stress adaptation. Why should we care about the situations inside the cells?
Andrei Smertenko: Well, cells host the genes. So lots of chemical reactions inside cells are focused on supporting the genes functions, and more importantly, protecting genes during unfavorable environmental conditions. So many stresses can cause damage to DNA, and as a consequence, plants do not feel very good as they won’t perform very good, and the yield will not be so nice. So I think there are many cellular processes that we don’t know about, but they could help to protect genetic information. And if you’ll combine very useful cellular traits to protect genes, with very good genes that can be responsible for those important traits, we can achieve much better crops performance under stressful conditions.
Drew Lyon: Okay. So there’s more than just genes going on in there . There’s all other chemistry going on inside the cell that’s of interest to you.
Andrei Smertenko: Yeah. Absolutely.
Drew Lyon: So, your research is recently been supported by grant from the USDA. What is the main focus of this work?
Andrei Smertenko: So, in this work, we are focusing on a small cellular structure called peroxisome. So peroxisomes are notorious for their ability to neutralize toxic corrosive chemicals which are called reactive oxygen species, or ROS. ROS damage many cellular components during stresses, and what is very important is that, their production is increased under stress. So, cells have many different mechanisms to neutralize ROS, and peroxisomes is just one of them. So we believe by understanding how peroxisomes work under drought, we could device mechanisms to improving neutralization of ROS when there is a drought, ultimately protecting plants and protecting genetic markers.
Drew Lyon: So, what is so special about peroxisomes? You told us a little bit about it. But give us a little more detail about how they work, and what your real interest is with them.
Andrei Smertenko: Yes. What is very interesting about peroxisomes, is that their number in cells can change dramatically during different processes, and in particular during stress. So, we have found that the number of peroxisomes increases during drought, and we can use peroxisomes numbering cells as a kind of marker to understand at which point plants feel stressed, and at which point they don’t feel stressed. And perhaps we can engineer plants to give us a high number of peroxisomes that will perform better under drought.
Drew Lyon: Okay. So there are responsible for real at least small spectrum of chemical reactions in the cell. Are you afraid that if you focus on just this one type of organelle? Or is it an organelle?
Andrei Smertenko: Yes, it is.
Drew Lyon: One type of organelle, you might miss other important adaptation mechanisms?
Andrei Smertenko: Yeah of course. Always focusing on specific structure in cells is associated these risks, and particular, if you’re looking at stress responses. So as we know, under stress plants might rely on different resources, or in fact, probably all their resources to survive because it’s such important for their reproduction cycle. What I feel particularly excited about peroxisomes, is since they work in concept, there’s many other structures. For example, they cooperate together with chloroplast into photosynthesis. And they also cooperate as mitochondria in many biosynthetic, and in neutralizing carriers. So, the number of peroxisomes in cells as I mentioned depends on the ROS production, and therefore we can use peroxisomes as a marker of many reactions in the cell which control neutralization of ROS under stress. And therefore by looking at a relatively specific component of the cell, you can learn a lot about overall plant responses to stress.
Drew Lyon: Okay. So when you see a large generation of peroxisomes, you can also then look and see what else the plant might be doing to try to fight off drought stress.
Andrei Smertenko: Yeah. Indeed. So what is good about peroxisomes is they have developed a specific acid to quickly and very inexpensively estimate a number of peroxisomes in cells. And then once we identify interesting plant varieties or specific stage during the response to stress, we can deploy lots of other analytical techniques to understand more about other structures in the cell, and how they perform under stress.
Drew Lyon: Very interesting. So what will be the next steps in this research that you’re conducting?
Andrei Smertenko: So, next step we would like to identify genetic markers that are responsible for maintaining the number of peroxisomes in cells. So in this case, instead of measuring number of peroxisomes, we can throw away these markers, and combine them with oxygenatic markers that people identify by doing different research. Then, in combination, these two sets of markers could help us to predict how plants will respond under drought using computer simulations instead of doing real experiments.
Drew Lyon: So, wheat is genetically a fairly complex species. It’s a hexaploid. Three set of chromosomes. Why work with wheat? Why not work with something easy? What’s the one that all the…
Andrei Smertenko: Arabidopsis.
Drew Lyon: Arabidopsis. Yes. Why not work with a simple model plant like that rather than a complex plant like wheat?
Andrei Smertenko: Well, sometimes working with complex systems could bring a significant benefit. Importance of peroxisomes for so many different processes makes them indispensable for life. And if you try to mess up with genes that controls functions of peroxisomes, we can kill the plant. And so, identification of important markers of peroxisome preparation in simple genetic systems has been challenging, and in fact, up-to-date such markers have not been identified. And this is a significant drawback, and our understanding cause a lot of peroxisomes in stress responses. So what can be more complex? Genetic systems bring advantage. They have multiple genes responsible for regulation of peroxisomes numbers in cells. And if you for some reason mess up with some of them, plants probably will not die. And so it can survive, but we can probably detect its imitation. And this way we can identify the markers and unknown markers responsible for regulation of number of peroxisomes in cells.
Drew Lyon: Very interesting. So it’s interesting to me that there is multiple tracks to look at drought stress and plant reaction to drought stress. And this is one I was not familiar with. So thank you for sharing that with us. I was wondering if our listeners want to learn more about what you’re doing. Is there somewhere they can go to learn more about it?
Andrei Smertenko: First of all, thank you for the opportunity to record this podcast with you. You are welcome to go to the website of our institute. It’s Institute of Biological Chemistry, but you can get link to my personal webpage.
Drew Lyon: Okay. Thank you very much Andrei.
Andrei Smertenko: Thank you.
Drew Lyon: Thanks for listening to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. If you have questions for us, that you’d like to hear addressed on future episodes, please email me at email@example.com. You can find us online at smallgrains.wsu.edu. You can also find us on social media on Facebook and Twitter @WSUSmallGrains. Subscribe to this show through iTunes or your favorite podcasting app. The WSU Wheat Beat podcast is a production of CAHNRS Communications in the College of Agricultural Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. I’m Drew Lyon; we’ll see you next week.