CUNY Biologists Cultivate New Medicines,
Better Nutrition, and a Safer Environment
Walt Whitman famously writes in Song of Myself
of a child asking, What is the grass? The poet
goes on to offer several memorable answers to this perfect
question for a summers afternoon. Grass, he suggests,
is the handkerchief of the Lord/A scented gift and remembrancer
designedly dropped, or it is the flag of my disposition
out of hopeful green stuff woven, or even the
beautiful uncut hair of graves.
Dr. Dominick Basile, a professor in CUNYs Ph.D.
Program in plant sciences, offers an alternative but equally
poetic explanation: Theres a biblical saying that
all flesh is grass, meaning that plants are the
basis of all life forms and, therefore, what we learn from
plant research has far broader implications. Basile
is one of several biologists associated with the program,
based at Lehman College, who are seeking to answer questions
considerably more complex than What is the grass?
They are breaking new ground in our understanding not just
of our environment, but of ourselves.
The CUNY plant sciences programone of four sub-
programs of the Ph.D. in biologyrequires serious revision
of some common stereotypes about the Bronx. Its the only
one of its kind in New York City and one of only two in the
state (the other is at Cornell). And, with 51 current students,
it probably has the largest number of doctoral candidates in
one department in this field in the country.
|Seen above is Streptocarpus prolixus,
a plant that was the subject of the dissertation of the
accomplished nature illustrator Dick Rauh; for more examples
of his art
One of the factors that has helped the CUNY program grow is
a long-standing collaboration between Lehman and the nearby
New York Botanical Garden (NYBG), which has created a unique
resource for CUNY students. The Gardens staff offers courses
at Lehman, while its material, equipment and collections, including
about 12,000 species contained on its grounds and in its greenhouses,
supplement Lehmans laboratories and the Colleges
own research and teaching greenhouses. Thanks to successful
grant-writing by faculty in the Lehman Department of Biological
Sciences, the program operates with state-of-the-art laboratories
in molecular biology, biochemistry, and imaging.
If you ask Basile or his colleagues what makes their field of
research unique, theyll explain that plants cant
move. If it gets too hot, a plant cant relocate to the
shade. If a plant is being attacked by insects, it has to develop
a mechanism to resist. And these responses by plants to the
stresses in their surroundings have important potential applications
for health, nutrition, agriculture, and horticulture.
Those faculty, meanwhile, are internationally known for their
analytic, molecular, and botanical expertise. Dr. Eleanor Wurtzel,
chair of the plant sciences
|Carotenoid researchers Professor Eleanore
Wurtzel and Lehman undergraduate Nicholas Licciardello.
program, is one of only two scientists worldwide to receive
a Rockefeller Foundation grant to do work on carotenoid biosynthesis
and one of
only 10 to win a similar grant from the McKnight Foundation.
Altogether, she has attracted close to $5 million in funding
from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes
of Health, and other government and private sources, and has
presented her findings at scientific meetings throughout most
Carotenoids are nutritionally important compounds manufactured
in plants and needed by humans for development and as an important
source of beta carotene (vitamin A). The deficiency in vitamin
Awhich leads to malnutrition and often deathis linked
to diets that are low in these carotenoids worldwide, especially
in Asia, where rice is the staple food.
Wurtzel is trying to understand how plants regulate the accumulation
of carotenoids in their endosperm tissue, the tissue that forms
around the embryo in seed plants. She is studying both rice,
which has no carotenoids in its endosperm, and maize, which
does. Working on the molecular level, she hopes to improve the
nutritional quality of corn and other crops that are commonly
consumed in developing countries.
The research were conducting attracts pre-doctoral
students and both post- doctoral and visiting scientists from
around the world, Wurtzel notes, pointing to one student
from India and a biologist soon to arrive from the Chinese Academy
of Sciences. This enriches the teaching environment for
undergraduates, who can learn how to use very sophisticated
equipment and also help conduct experiments both with graduate
students and noted scientists.
Wurtzel herself is mentoring a junior, Nicholas Licciardello,
who just won an award from the Colleges chapter of Sigma
Xi, the national scientific research honor society, for the
quality of his molecular biology research on how plants produce
Other health benefits can be derived from plants as well. Basiles
niche, for instance, lies in producing medicinal drug compounds
from plant cultures in a laboratory. The technology is
not that far along, he said, but the potential is
tremendousespecially where you cant get enough of
the actual plant.
|Andreanna Ososki examining an exultant
stand of height-of-spring rosemary at the New York Botanical
Garden in the Bronx.
Basile currently is looking at two cancer-fighting plants: rosemary
and edible figs. Both fresh and dried figs are chock-full
of anti-oxidants, he says. We know theyre
safe because people have been eating them for years. The same
is true of rosemary. Use it in your cooking. Put it in your
Basile has also done important early research on how plants
develop from a single cell to the size and shape by which they
are recognized. If you understand what controls the time
and place cell division happensor doesnt happenyou
can figure out why a particular plant is producing fewer leaves,
branches, or fruit.
One of Basile's notable recent doctoral graduates is Dick
Rauh, whose dissertation focused on the effects of certain
hormones on the growth of the Streptocarpus prolixus plant.
Rauh came into the program through his accomplished nature illustrations.
His portrait of the remarkable unifoliate plant is seen here,
and the related story of his remarkable previous career can
be found on page 12.
One of Basiles colleagues, meanwhile, is studying the
interaction between plants and microorganisms. The plant Dr.
Haiping Cheng is using in his research is alfalfa, a rotation
crop used to improve corn fields. The microorganism under his
scrutiny is a common soil bacterium called Sinorhizobium
The relationship between corn and Sinorhizobium
is symbiotic and they communicate through chemical signals,
Cheng explains. The plant builds a house for
the bacterium to live in and provides for all its needs. The
bacterium, in turn, converts nitrogen gas from the atmosphere
into ammonia, which the plant uses as a nitrogen source. This
is important, because nitrogen is the limiting factor for growth
in most plants.
Cheng and his student-researchers label the bacterium with fluorescence
and observe it under the microscope. Its sort of
like watching a fish tank and characterizing the steps the bacterium
takes to get into the plant, he said. Its
a good interaction, but we need to understand it betterespecially
the communication. For example, how does the plant select the
signal that the correct amount of bacteria, and not disease-causing
bacteria, have come into its root to provide nitrogen?
The complete Sinorhizobium genome was decoded last summer,
which Cheng describes as a gigantic step. It means,
he adds, that we can more efficiently identify the genes
the bacterium uses to make signals. Once we understand the communication,
we can improve it, and this may result in healthier crops, better
soil, and a safer environment, because fertilizers will be used
Basile, Cheng, and others on the faculty have made some important
discoveries themselves. A team led by Basile was the first to
demonstrate that an anti- malarial compound found in the plant
Artemisia annua L. could be produced in quantity from
relatively unspecialized cells developed from the plant in the
laboratory. In nature, this compound is only produced in the
plants specialized gland cells. This development could
lead to an alternative, cost-effective source for treating malaria.
Dominican Republic, the Bronx:
In Search of New Alternative
Andreanna Ososki brought unusual prior
research experience with her when she
became a CUNY doctoral student in plant sciences. Her
interest in ethnobotany had been sparked while in the
African nation of Zimbabwe on a study-abroad program at
Pitzer College. It was there that I began to learn
about how Zimbabwean women used plants for different ailments.
Ososkis present focus on ethnobotany has brought
her a Fulbright-Hays award to conduct fieldwork in the
Dominican Republic. There I spent my time interviewing
women and healers about herbal remedies and collecting
plants, she says. Through my interviews I
recorded cultural traditions, health care beliefs, and
stories that are continuing to erode away.
Ososkis impetus for this project was her participation
as a research assistant in the Urban Ethnobotany project,
which led her to interview Dominican healers and their
impact on womens health care right here in New York
City. She was drawn to the city by the research of her
current advisor, Dr. Michael Balick of the Botanical Garden
(about half of CUNYs current doctoral candidates
perform the bulk of their research at the Garden).
With the increasing interest in herbal medicine
worldwide, says Ososki, we must look to other
cultures for alternative health care. Research in
this field, she is certain, will be an integral
part of my career direction as a professor and researcher.
Basile was also the first to show that an anti-addictive drug
normally produced in the roots of a tropical shrub, Tabernanthe
iboga H. Bn, could be produced in a lab in temperate climate.
Again, his experiment did not use the rootsjust cells
isolated from the plants stems. This research could also
lead to an alternative, cost-effective source of a drug effective
in treating addictions to heroin, cocaine, alcohol, and nicotine.
Dr. Edward Kennelly just became the first scientist to identify
the anti-oxidants in the star apple, a tropical fruit grown
in Florida and Central and South America. The star appleits
not really an appleis about the size of a baseball, dark
purple, with a sweet, smooth fruit that is scooped out. Kennelly
is working now on another tropical plant, sapodilla,
that is related to the star apple. Evidence gathered so far
indicates that it, too, contains new anti-oxidant compounds.
Kennelly believes CUNY is the only institution in the world
conducting research on sapodilla
January, the National Institutes of Health sent Kennelly to
Mali, in West Africa, to meet with officials in the Department
of Traditional Medicine, where they talked about forming a joint
research project among Lehman College, Mali, the New York Botanical
Garden, and the Columbia University Center for Complementary
and Alternative Medicine. This is very exciting,
Kennelly says, because health practitioners in Mali have
so much information about how plants have been used as part
of traditional medicine in their culture.
Other plant scientists on the faculty include Dr. Dwight Kincaid,
an ecologist who specializes in urban botany and biostatistics;
Dr. Miguel Cervantes-Cervantes, a plant physiologist who is
currently studying senescence, the autumn phase
when deciduous trees shed their leaves; and Dr. Thomas Jensen,
chair of the department, a cell biologist who has published
extensively on his detailed microscopic investigations of
microbial cells, especially those of Cyanobacteria.
More information on the work of these researchers is available
on the Lehman website http://a32.lehman.cuny.edu/PlantPhd.