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Genetic Engineering for the Non-Science Major: Discovering Genes Required to Make a Seed

Research Summary

Bob Goldberg’s research focuses on how to make a seed. He is using a novel plant, the Scarlet Runner Bean, which has “giant” embryos, to identify the genes required to program seed development. For his HHMI Professor project, he combined a lecture course for non-science undergraduates that uses senior science majors as teaching assistants with a laboratory experience that used state-of-the-art genomic technologies to uncover genes that are responsible for seed formation.

Project Summary

Dr. Goldberg'’s goal was to show undergraduates how research is carried out; how scientists are just like everyone else; how much effort, imagination, and creativity go into experimental thought; and that science is fun. He planned to reach non-science students as well as entering life sciences undergraduates who have not been exposed to experimental research. He combined a unique integrative lecture course——Genetic Engineering in Medicine, Agriculture, and Law——with a cutting-edge laboratory experience that used state-of-the-art genomic technologies to uncover genes that are responsible for “how to make a seed.” The lecture course was taught in the winter quarter of each year. This course provided a foundation in molecular biology as it applies to genetic engineering and also addressed the social, legal, and ethical issues that arise as a result of emerging genetic technologies. The class was highly interactive, team-oriented, and problem-based; it taught students how to think critically about experimental science and the societal issues raised by emerging genetic technologies.

After the lecture course, students were organized into teams to carry out original research designed to address the following question: What genes control the earliest stages of seed development? A novel aspect of this course was that advanced undergraduates were teaching fellows. Undergraduates majoring in molecular biology were given a unique opportunity to teach the discussion sections and serve as peer mentors in the laboratory part of the course. Students were grouped with their peer mentors as well as graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in Dr. Goldberg’'s laboratory. Undergraduate teams had their own research projects that addressed original questions.

Research Summary

Dr. Goldberg's laboratory has been investigating the molecular processes controlling the development of specialized cells in higher plants. They carried out many of the first plant ““genomics”” experiments that demonstrated that plant genomes have repeated and single-copy sequences that are organized similarly to those in animal genomes. They also carried out the first comprehensive plant gene expression experiments that estimated the number of genes required for the entire plant life cycle, demonstrated that plant cells have complex nuclear RNA sequences, showed that each plant organ expresses a unique gene set, and determined that both transcriptional and posttranscriptional processes play major roles in regulating plant gene expression.

When it became possible to clone specific plant genes, his laboratory focused on the regulation of seed protein genes as a model for dissecting the regulatory events that occur during embryo development. They were among the first to create plant genomic and cDNA libraries, demonstrate that plant genes contain introns, and show that both transcription and mRNA stability regulate embryo-specific gene expression patterns. They also developed one of the first plant in situ hybridization protocols and carried out mRNA localization experiments that visualized the complexity of cell-specific gene regulatory patterns that occur during embryo development. In addition, many of the first gene regulation experiments using transgenic plants were carried out in his laboratory and showed that large blocks of genes can be transferred from one plant to another and maintain their developmental-specific expression patterns, which indicates that each plant gene has its own cis-element responsible for its programmed expression during development.

His laboratory uncovered a gene, designated TA29, that is active only in the tapetal cell layer that surrounds the pollen chamber and is required for pollen grain production. In collaboration with others, they used the TA29 gene transcriptional control region to genetically engineer a novel system for male-fertility control in crop plants. This system is able to generate male-sterile plants and restore their fertility, and it allowed the development of new hybrid canola varieties with increased yield (about 25%).

Last updated October 2002

Scientist Profile

HHMI Professor
University of California - –Los Angeles
Plant Biology