|Purdue plant geneticist Scott Jackson and a research team received a $4.5 million National Science Foundation grant to sequence the soybean genome. The sequencing eventually will lead to development of new soybean varieties with higher yields and specific traits. (Photo by Tom Campbell)
Scott Jackson figured he didn't have the bedside manner to let his love of science lead to a career as a doctor, and, not liking chemistry, he wasn't sure where a degree in science would take him. Then, serendipity struck the college senior while he was doing a laboratory experiment.
Insight dawned as he was crossing fruit flies with different traits to determine which traits had changed in the resulting progeny. “Before that, I had no clue there was a whole area of research in genetics and cell biology,” Jackson says.
Now a Purdue University plant geneticist, Jackson is leading a $4.5 million National Science Foundation project to locate and determine the function of all the genes that make up soybeans. Again, serendipity occurred—before coming to Purdue in 2001, he had never seen soybeans except through the window of a moving car.
An evolving plant
Jackson and his team of Purdue scientists are pulling apart the soybean genome and then piecing it back together. Their goal is to invent soybeans that are better able to withstand drought, insects and diseases; cost less to produce; have higher yields per acre; can provide a better fuel to replace petroleum; and can be used for new, healthier foods and other consumer goods.
This process appeals to Jackson, who likes building things, finding how they work and seeing a result at the end of the day. “I'm attracted to lines of research or jobs where you see something, where there's a sense of reward and accomplishment,” says Jackson, who compares it to his experience working housing construction. “I can build a house, create a wall, put it up. At the end of the day, the house isn't done, but you can see the framework is coming along.”
His research as a geneticist and cell biologist combines his love of building, science and history. “The soybean has a complex evolutionary history,” Jackson says. “It's an ancient plant that has duplicated its genome probably about three times. These duplications have resulted in four to eight copies of the original genes and raised a whole slew of questions about their function. Some of the genes may be active, some inactive and some may have assumed new roles.”
Learning about these genes not only tells how soybeans have changed over the years but also identifies the traits humans have selected to keep throughout the centuries, he says. People have chosen beans that grow bigger, tolerate certain climates and taste better. “This gives us an insight into human history,” says Jackson, the first recipient of the Wickersham Chair of Excellence in Agricultural Research. “The plants with the chosen traits leave a footprint in the genome.”