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Summer 2002
CUNY Biologists Cultivate New Medicines
Remarkable June Grads Break the Mold
Major CUNY Response to Nursing Shortage
Harlem Hospital Leader a Role Model for Salk Scholars
"Votes Rebuild New York" Campaign Launched
Goldstein “Closeup” On Honors College Governors Island, High Schools
CUNY ANNOUNCES 9/11 Memorial Competition
CCNY Engineer Honored by the Nation

Seminar-in-a-Book Ponders 9/11

From "Ground Zero" Rapper to City Council Candidate
Turning Anger into Literature
Model City Council Planned in the Fall
Highlights of 2002-2003 State Adopted Budget
Two New CUNY Trustees Appointed
Biomedical Engineer Wins Guggenheim
City University Leading Producer of Hispanic Graduates
The Challenge of AIDS in Africa
Bilingual: College French, Scientist's Latin
Presidential Appointments for Queens and York Colleges

Queens College Artist Adds New Passion to His Palette

El Diario-La Prensa Editor Honored at Model Senate

Intel Chief Plunges into Memory

Dual Citizen of the Pen

"Opticals" for Woody Allen, Illustrations for Mother Nature
CUNY Faculty Experts on Post-9/11 Response Listed on Web Site
 
 

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 summer’s 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 CUNY’s Ph.D. Program in plant sciences, offers an alternative but equally poetic explanation: “There’s 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.

streptocarpus plants
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
The CUNY plant sciences program—one of four sub- programs of the Ph.D. in biology—requires serious revision of some common stereotypes about the Bronx. It’s 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.

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 Garden’s 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 Lehman’s laboratories and the College’s 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, they’ll explain that plants can’t move. If it gets too hot, a plant can’t 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.

Carotenoid researchers Professor Eleanore Wurtzel and Lehman undergraduate Nicholas Licciardello.
Carotenoid researchers Professor Eleanore Wurtzel and Lehman undergraduate Nicholas Licciardello.
Those faculty, meanwhile, are internationally known for their analytic, molecular, and botanical expertise. Dr. Eleanor Wurtzel, chair of the plant sciences
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 of Asia.

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 A—which leads to malnutrition and often death—is 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 we’re 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 College’s chapter of Sigma Xi, the national scientific research honor society, for the quality of his molecular biology research on how plants produce carotenoids.

Andreanna Ososki examining an exultant stand of height-of-spring rosemary at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx.
Andreanna Ososki examining an exultant stand of height-of-spring rosemary at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx.
Other health benefits can be derived from plants as well. Basile’s 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 tremendous—especially where you can’t get enough of the actual plant.”

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 they’re safe because people have been eating them for years. The same is true of rosemary. Use it in your cooking. Put it in your olive oil.”

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 happens—or doesn’t happen—you 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 Basile’s 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 meliloti.

“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. “It’s sort of like watching a fish tank and characterizing the steps the bacterium takes to get into the plant,” he said. “It’s a good interaction, but we need to understand it better—especially 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 more efficiently.”


Zimbabwe, Dominican Republic, the Bronx:
In Search of New Alternative Medicines
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.”
Ososki’s 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.”
Ososki’s 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 women’s 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 CUNY’s 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, 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.

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 roots—just cells isolated from the plant’s 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 apple—it’s not really an apple—is 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

Last 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.