USDA Program

Student-Faculty Research Opportunities

USDA-HSI Grant Project

Plant Biotechnology-Dr. Michael Persans

In the Persans lab, the students will have research project options which include: investigations into the mechanisms of tolerance of metal hyperaccumulator plants to heavy metals and the study of the mycorrhizal associations that bacteria and fungi have with the roots of metal hyperaccumulator plants. The main topics of research in my lab are: the isolation and characterization of genes involved in heavy metal tolerance in plants, the oxidative stress caused by heavy metals in plants, and the use of remote sensing to monitor environmental pollution caused by heavy metals using plants as a model indicator organism.

The tolerance of plants to heavy metal toxicity (Nickel and Copper) is one of the projects in the lab that students can participate in. By understanding the mechanisms by which heavy metals are tolerated, a possible scheme could be devised for the phytoremediation of heavy metals. In addition, plants genetically engineered to hyperaccumulate large amounts of heavy metals could be used for phytoremediation purposes to clean up toxic sites which may be health threats. Heavy metals also cause oxidative stress in addition to the other damaging mechanisms they possess. Understanding how hyperaccumulator plants tolerate this oxidative stress is an essential component in the engineering of a practical phytoremediation plant.

The research topics available to students are multidisciplinary in that not only do the students learn about plant cell and molecular biology, but they also learn many techniques in supporting fields such as biochemistry, analytical chemistry, instrumental analysis, and plant tissue culture that are necessary for the execution of the broader experiments in plant biology.


Agricultural Remote Sensing - Dr. K. Rod Summy

 Undergraduate and/or graduate students working under the supervision of Dr. K. Rod Summy, UTPA, will participate in research designed to evaluate the effects of heavy metal accumulation (particularly arsenic) on spectral reflectance by foliage of selected native plant species. The objective of this research will be to assess the feasibility of using spectral reflectance by foliage of certain “indicator” plant species as reliable evidence of heavy metal contamination, and using multispectral color-infrared (CIR) and/or hyperspectral imagery to map the extent of such contamination. Procedures will involve collection of spectral data for control (untreated) and treatment plants (exposed to varying levels of the heavy metal in question) using a spectroradiometer sensitive to electromagnetic radiation (EMR) ranging from ultraviolet (300-350 nm) through the near-infrared region (700-1,100 nm). Spectral curves for controls and treatments will be evaluated by subjecting reflectance data at selected wavelengths to analysis of variance (ANOVA) and means separation tests.

In addition, conventional color (RGB) and CIR imagery will be acquired for treatments and controls, and digital numbers for each will be compared using ANOVA and other standard statistical procedures. In addition, image enhancement techniques such as ratio imagery (e.g., NIR/Red ratios for each pixel in imagery) will be used in efforts to detect subtle differences in reflectance (by treatments vs controls) that may not be evident with conventional imagery.

These studies are expected to clarify the feasibility of using common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) and other native plant species as “indicators” of contamination by arsenic and/or other heavy metals at a particular geographic location, and of detecting such contamination by use of conventional remote sensing technology. Students participating in these studies will receive hands-on training in common remote sensing techniques, the use of sophisticated image processing software, and the design, analysis and interpretation of experiments based on remote sensing technology.

Environmental Chemistry- Dr. Jason Parsons

I have varied research interests which include the broadly defined category of environmental chemistry which can encompass inorganic/bio-inorganic, nanomaterials, and analytical chemistry. More specifically, my research interests are in the interactions of heavy metal/semimetal ions/complexes and nanomaterials with biological systems such as microorganisms and plants. In addition, I am also interested in the analytical chemistry of nanomaterials and the reactions of these materials. The synthesis, characterization and applications of nanomaterials to different environmental problems and the possible environmental problems associated with these types of materials are my research interests as well. In addition, I am interested in the applications of different analytic instrumentation, such as ICP-OES, ICP-MS, LC-ICP-MS, synchrotron based X-ray Absorption spectroscopy (XAS including EXAFS and XANES), FTIR, and XRD to the analysis of environmental samples.

Plant Genomics-Dr. Erin Schuenzel

The main focus of my work is population genetics and genomics of bacterial plant pathogens. The organisms that I am currently working with are bacterial plant pathogens that infect a variety of economically important fruit and vegetables; Candidatus Liberibacter sp. (citrus, potato), Xyllela fastidiosa (citrus, grapevine, almonds), Xanthomonas campestris (peppers, cabbage), Acidovorax avenae (rice, corn, watermelon, squash), and Psuedomonas syringae (tomato, pepper, kiwi). Projects in my lab would examine plant host-bacterial pathogen adaptation, bacterial taxonomy through molecular mean, rapid disease diagnostics and bacterial genomics. All projects in my lab would include learning how to extract, amplify and sequence DNA. DNA analysis includes gaining familiarity with computer programs and biological databases to answer questions about how bacterial populations evolve. Students will also learn how to optimize classical polymerase chain reaction and optimize real-time polymerase chain reaction.   

Specific research projects include development of DNA fingerprint databases, also known as multi-locus sequence analysis, for Candidatus Liberibacter, Pseudomonas syringae and Acidovorax avenae. Development of these databases allows for specific identification of pathogens, tracking of disease outbreaks and understanding the evolution of the different species. Host adaptation studies of Xylella fastidiosa involve sequencing of candidate genes and creating knockout mutants of these same genes to understand their function in pathogenicity trials. Other projects include determining the taxonomic classification of Candidatus Liberibacter sp. and Xanthomonas sp. using gene sequence and genomic information.

Environmental Science Training-Dr. Frank J. Dirrigl, Jr.

Undergraduate and graduate students will be trained in environmental science techniques related to the biomonitoring of terrestrial and aquatic (freshwater and marine) habitats and how this information can guide land and water management. Because the lower Rio Grande River region of south Texas supports industry, a rapidly growing US-Mexico border population, and long history of agriculture, students will have the opportunity to develop individualized research projects in: environmental health, pollution reduction and control, natural resources and biodiversity, and sustainable agriculture and irrigation.

Hands-on training will include field and laboratory use of specialized water quality sampling and testing equipment. Students will learn to collect physical and chemical data, such as nutrients and metals, and use different parameters to conduct functional assessments of engineered structures used for irrigation, flood control, stormwater management, water improvement and conservation, and municipal use or discharge. The technical skills and knowledge learned will prepare students for professional careers in biology, environmental science, and natural resource and agricultural sciences.

Texas A&M Kingsville Citrus Center-Dr. Eliezer S. Louzada

Eliezer S. Louzada receied his Ph.D. from Federal University of Rio De Janeiro/University of Florida. He was appointed to the faculty at Texas A&M University-kingsville Citrus Center, Weslaco. In 1997 and currently holds the rank of Associate Professor in the Department of Agronomy & Resource Sciences. Eliezer teaches Advances in Plant Biotechnology, and advances in Plant Cell and Tissue Culture. He initiated in 2000 a hands-on research internship program to provide training in molecular biology to undergraduate students

Mammalian Reproduction Physiology and Breast Cancer-Dr. Robert Dearth

The female reproductive system is based on a cascade of complicated events,requiring the aid of several different organs, culminating to maintain reproductive vitality and fertility. Exogenous and endogenous-induced disruptions during critical points in a women's life (i.e. puberty and pregnancy) can dictate her well-being for the rest of her life (induction/protection from cancer and infertility). My goal (as a neuroendocrinologist) is to aid in the discovery of new/improved ideologies that will advance female reproductive sciences. Specifically, my current and future research will focus on two main areas: 1.) Reproductive factors that affect breast cancer, and 2.) toxicological effects on female reproduction.