HIRAM, Ohio - Brad Goodner and his undergraduate students are part of an effort that could one day lead to better vegetables and greater understanding of some human ailments.
The research at Hiram College involves unlocking the mysteries of a bacterium that has plagued the food and plant industry.
Anyone who has touched dirt has had contact with agrobacterium tumefaciens. The bacterium gets into plants, causing crown gall, or wartlike tumors. The bacterium typically enters through a root wound. Then, "the plant cells grow out of control," Goodner said.
Goodner, 42, a biology professor, made headlines in the scientific community in 2001 by leading a team that deciphered the genetic makeup of the bacterium.
It was a project similar to, though far less extensive than, the human genome initiative.
Goodner's work resulted in a detailed map revealing that agrobacterium has about 5,000 genes. By comparison, humans have an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 genes.
Goodner said the work means scientists now have "5,000 tools to help us understand how agrobacterium causes diseases in plants and how some strains cause disease in very sick humans."
In humans, the bacterium does not cause tumors, "but causes all kinds of strange things," such as blood and muscle infections, he said.
Goodner's work and that of another team led by researchers at the University of Washington were published in December 2001 in the prestigious Journal of Science. Goodner did the research while at the University of Richmond, shortly before he joined Hiram in fall 2001.
Now, the work is the basis for continued research by Goodner and his undergraduate students at Hiram.
Some of the research involves exploring the good side of agrobacterium. While most strains of agrobacterium cause disease by injecting their own DNA into a plant, the bacterium also can be used as a "delivery device" to transfer foreign, beneficial genes into a plant, Goodner said.
Already, agrobacterium is used to genetically modify a good portion of the United States' soybeans and corn. New genes are introduced to enhance flavor, ward off insects and make crop plants more resistant to herbicides.
Meanwhile, scientists are developing ways to lessen the incidence of crown gall through the use of other bacteria.
This semester at Hiram, 28 students work in a cluttered lab, answering such questions as how light influences the interactions between agrobacterium and the plant, how the bacterium interacts with animal cells and how the bacterium is related to other soil organisms.
The Hiram students' tools are petri dishes containing pieces of vegetables - such as slices of carrots - or animal tissue cells that have been infected with agrobacterium.
Students also are part of projects to decipher the genetic code of several other soil bacteria, including ones that live in very salty places.
It's unusual for undergraduate students at a small liberal arts school to be involved with such sophisticated scientific research, Hiram spokesman Tim Bryan said.
Goodner said he was attracted to Hiram's "close-knit community of faculty and students." He said it's exciting to bring to the students research experiences "normally associated with large research universities."
Goodner's work attracted a $100,000 grant for Hiram from the National Institutes of Health. Some of the NIH money pays the wages of students helping with research.
Christopher Crowe, a 22-year-old Hiram student bound for medical school, said when he first heard about Goodner's work "I just assumed it was a plant thing and wouldn't help me as far as getting experience with medically important research."
But Goodner encouraged Crowe to look into how some strains cause diseases in humans with compromised immune systems. Crowe said he has been to the Crown Gall Conference two times with Goodner and other Hiram students and "we were the only ones studying its effect on humans."
Crowe believes his work with Goodner helped him get into the M.D./Ph.D program at the University of Pittsburgh. Admission to the program is highly competitive; each year, a maximum of 13 students are admitted.
Crowe said that when he was making the interview rounds at various medical schools he would run into students from prestigious places such as Harvard, MIT and Johns Hopkins. He said he's convinced "the research experience here (at Hiram) is equivalent to what I could have obtained at a big research school."
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