When it comes to disease, plants are the perfect research subjects. They can be crowded into close quarters. They can be grown quickly and in large numbers. Associate Professor of Biology Michael E. Hood admires them, but he doesn’t feel badly when he destroys a diseased specimen.
All in all, plants are perfect if, like Hood and his students, you want to study large swaths of diseases—particularly in sexually transmitted forms—and how they spread among individuals.
“From a practical standpoint, plant systems in general often work much better than animal systems for studying disease resistance or disease transmission,” notes Victoria Luizzi ’17, who has been working with Hood this fall. With a thesis that involves 10,000 individual specimens, Luizzi notes that working with plants allow for “experiments on a much larger scale than is usually possible working with animals.
This work—tracking disease among plants—this fall earned Hood (and his fellow researchers at the University of California Berkley and the University of Virginia) a $1.7 million joint grant. Issued by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, it will fund research that could eventually lead to an understanding of a range of pathogens—including human-related ones—and the larger patterns of how they spread.
“All organisms get diseases—and the majority of species on the planet are parasites or pathogens,” says Hood. Disease “causes huge amounts of human misery and loss of life [and] greatly impacts our ability produce food and fiber that we need through agriculture. What our ultimate aims are is better understanding of these interactions.”
For the study, Hood and his students filled the McGuire Life Sciences Building greenhouse with trays of Dianthus, a relative of carnations. The plant is a common roadside weed in Italy, where Hood and his students travel each summer to study the plant in the wild.