Scientific discoveries in genetics are revealing the similarities we share with the living things that surround us, including plants.
While we look very different from the greenery that’s rooted in the earth, our genetic makeup — or genomes — contain some similarities to plants. And identifying those commonalities eventually could help scientists find the key to shutting down human diseases such as cancer.
A University of Arizona scientist, Vicki Chandler, is focused on studying plant genetics with the goal of applying what she discovers to help medical scientists make new breakthroughs in understanding human diseases and improving treatments.
This month, Chandler was awarded a National Institutes of Health Pioneer Award for her studies on plant genetics. She was one of 13 scientists around the nation chosen from 840 applicants for the award in biomedical development, which provides each winner with $500,000 annually for five years.
Plants would appear to lack a lot of the characteristics that distinguish us from the rest of the natural world. They don’t have two legs, a brain or a heart. But Chandler believes they could be an excellent source for explaining genetic processes that occur in all beings.
"You can uncover important information in sometimes surprising places that can be relevant to human health," Chandler said.
As a plant scientist, Chandler is a rare bird within the winners’ circle. The other researchers specialize in human health issues in areas such as neurology, psychiatry and epidemiology.
While studying corn, Chandler looked at the interaction of two versions of a gene that carried a purple pigment. One version had a large amount of the pigment and the other a small amount.
The different forms of the purple gene "talked" to each other. Chandler had discovered a mechanism to determine whether some genes become active or silenced — a key to controlling genes.