Richard Amasino has been growing plants ever since his mother let him plant his first seeds. His research addresses the mystery of how a plant knows that it has been through a complete winter and that it is now safe to flower in response to the lengthening days of spring. Amasino's lab discovered the molecular epigenetic switch that prevents a plant from flowering until it has experienced a long period of cold weather.
Now, as an HHMI professor, the plant biologist plans to use plant genetics to involve undergraduates in original experiments and to develop appealing, accessible genetics-based teaching units for K-12 science.
Plants are ideal organisms for classroom studies, Amasino said. They are cheap and easy to grow. In fact, FastPlants, fast-flowering cabbages developed by Amasino's University of Wisconsin colleague Paul Williams, are so well suited for plant biology lessons, they are already used by as many as 10 million students and 70,000 teachers annually.
For his HHMI project, Amasino proposes to turn the successful FastPlants teaching tool into a practical genetic model for more extensive classroom use and student research. Until now, the big obstacle has been that FastPlants do not accept their own pollen. To remedy this, Amasino has spent the past two years breeding self-compatible FastPlants that remain healthy despite the inbreeding required for genetic experiments.
Amasino plans to have teams of undergraduates join members of his lab to create an extensive collection of FastPlants mutants. They also will help develop hands-on classroom activities using FastPlants, designed to show K-12 students how genes pass from one generation to the next and how genetics can be used to study developmental and biochemical processes.
Amasino also intends to design a science class to make undergraduate non-science majors more science-savvy. Part of his inspiration came from the recent, highly publicized successful lawsuit by parents against the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board mandate that "intelligent design" be taught in science classrooms. "In the long run, one of the most important contributions scientists can make is to help those who are not scientists better understand science," he said. "The more people who can distinguish science from non-science, the better off we'll all be."