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Fall 2009
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Summer Scholars Focus on Plant Disease

By Isabel Lea Sterne ’10

Ann Fisher
Chris Bentley

Ann Fisher, a student from St. John Fisher College in Rochester, examines developing plants derived from callus tissue genetically transformed to resist plant disease.

For California native Cristine Kreitzer, it took a trip across the country to encounter a bacterium that has been plaguing her home state for years. Kreitzer, a student at Auburn University, spent her summer researching Xylella, which blocks water flow in plants and acts as the culprit behind Pierce’s disease, a deadly grapevine pathogen.

She is one of 11 undergraduate students to participate in the first-ever Plant Pathology Summer Research Scholars Program at Cornell’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station (NYSAES). The eight-week program, focused on agricultural issues, is designed to teach young scholars to plan and conduct experiments, evaluate data, and explain their findings.

Eric Newton, a landscape and horticulture student at the University of Southern Maine in Orono, gained invaluable laboratory experience. He extracted RNA from the herbaceous plant Nicotiana benthamiana to study resistance mechanisms to grapevine fanleaf virus. “I learned lab protocols that I was never exposed to before working in greenhouses as a horticulture student,” says Newton.

Newton pointed to the diverse group of scholars as another benefit. He lived with roommates from Maryland and Mississippi and also interacted with scientists from Brazil and Bulgaria.

Benjamin Bartlett, an integrated pest management major at Mississippi State University, is particularly impressed with the collaborative environment at NYSAES. “In a lot of other labs I’ve been in, people keep to themselves, but here people interact and work together on solutions,” says Bartlett.

Bartlett worked to develop a variety of grapevines resistant to Pierce’s disease. Bartlett and his colleagues experimented with injecting plants with a weakened version of the virus (similar to how a vaccine works) to deliver a small amount of compounds to kill the disease-causing bacteria.

“The student scholars experience research in many diverse aspects of plant pathology and gain an appreciation for how it supports agriculture,” says Harvey Hoch, chair of the Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology Department in Geneva.