In the Iowa State University Memorial Union
In the Iowa State University Memorial Union

Hello! I’m Anastasia Bodnar, a second year PhD student at Iowa State University. My major is “Interdepartmental Genetics”, an interdisciplinary program that allows me to work in a variety of fields, including plant breeding, biotechnology, and nutrition.

When I’m not in the lab or the field, I write about the science, ethics, politics, economics, etc of genetically modified plants at my blog Genetic Maize. I’m also a contributor at the blog Clashing Cultures where the interactions of science and religion are explored by people from different faiths and different scientific backgrounds. As of now, I’ll also contribute to Biofortified, writing about my favorite topic, plant genetics, and how this field affects the world around us. I’m very exciting to be working with some of my favorite bloggers on this project. I just hope I can find time to do it all!

Genetic engineering is such a complex topic, one that people (both proponents and opponents, scientists and lay people) oversimplify far too often. It is rarely correct to make a blanket statement about “all GMOs”. For example, I think most of us would agree that herbicide resistant crops created by a large corporation are fundamentally different from the flood tolerant rice created by a scientist with public funds and freely distributed to small farmers in developing countries. These two have different ethical, environmental, safety, social justice, and intellectual property issues, just to name a few. It is unfair, unscientific, and possibly unethical to lump together all products produced by genetic engineering. It is also unfair to lump genetic engineering with what is known as conventional agriculture. Some genetically engineered plants might be more suited for large commercial farming, while others are scale neutral and could fit in well with a variety of farming techniques, including organic. I hope that I can elaborate on these ideas through my posts here at Biofortified.

My major professor is Paul Scott, a USDA researcher in ISU’s Agronomy Department. Manju Reddy is our collaborator in ISU’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. I have three main projects that all aim to improve the nutritional qualities of maize. You can read more about the projects after the cut.

Modern corn varieties have been selected and inbred for so many years that a lot of the genetic diversity has been lost. This means that modern corn has a smaller gene pool, so is lacking in traits like disease resistance. Modern corn also has rather un-nutritious seeds, a problem I’m hoping to help alleviate.

I’m screening two relatives of maize, the grasses teosinte and tripsicum, for interesting seed storage proteins. My studies so far have shown that the proteins in seeds from teosinte and tripsicum are much more varied than in modern corn varieties, and that some of those proteins are higher in essential amino acids. Two of my collaborators are using traditional breeding to get desired traits from teosinte and tripsicum into maize, while I plan to use biotechnology. I hope to explain the advantages and disadvantages of these methods in future posts. This type of biotechnology is called “cisgenics” or “intragenics”, using genes from the species of interest or related species. This is distinct from “transgenics”, which uses genes from an unrelated species.

Another example of cisgenics can be found in my second project, developing maize with improved iron bio-availability using the gene for maize hemoglobin. It seems that all plants have a gene for hemoglobin, but don’t produce the protein at detectable levels. We are hoping that overexpressing the hemoglobin protein in maize will cause the plant to uptake more iron from the soil and store it in the seeds in a highly digestible form. This research is important because anemia, or lack of iron, is the most prevalent nutritional deficiency in the world.

My third project aims to find new ways to use biotechnology in plant breeding and to learn how overexpressing a gene in corn seeds will affect the natural seed proteins. I’m using corn plants that have been engineered to express GFP (green fluorescent protein from jellyfish) in their seeds, selecting for plants that produce brighter and brighter seeds. The gene is controlled by the promoter for one of the many seed storage proteins, so we hypothesize that populations selected for brighter fluorescence will also have the highest levels of the corresponding natural protein. If this is true, then GFP might be used as a easily visible marker to help plant breeders select for proteins or pathways that are difficult to measure – including those that produce nutritionally important compounds.