Winning entries of the December 2015 “Teaching Tools Proposal” competition

We had many excellent proposals submitted for the third round of the “Teaching Tools in Plant Biology” competition, from which we selected three for further development. We’ve added another opportunity for you to submit your ideas for consideration as a Teaching Tools, deadline October 1, 2016 (see this for more information). Feel free to contact us at any time to discuss your ideas about creating a Teaching Tool.

Maker Tools for Education: From MicroComputers to the Circadian Clock and Beyond, by Malia Gehan, Noah Fahlgren and Dmitri A. Nusinow

Although modern plant biology requires computational proficiency to handle large datasets, ‘plantcentric’ modules in computer science are lacking. To fill this gap, we are developing modules that combine plant phenotyping with digital image processing tools to quantify plant traits and responses to the environment. This teaching tool for introductory plant or computer science courses will be scalable for elementary, highschool, and undergraduate students and utilizes lowcost microcomputers ($35).

The learning objectives are as follows: First, we introduce the importance of plant interactions with the environment, circadian rhythms, and the importance of tracking plant growth, movements, and traits through time. Second, we will introduce the connection between plant and computer science through programing a Timelapse imaging script. Third, we use opensource computational tools to quantify differences in growth and movement of clock mutants compared to wildtype plants to illustrate how internal processes such as the circadian clock regulate responses to the external environment. Together, this active learning tool will use opensource plant phenomics to integrate computational and plant sciences to engage students and encourage interest in plant science.Makers

Malia Gehan, recently completed an NSF Plant Genome Initiative Postdoctoral Fellowship and is currently a Research Scientist at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, MO. Her current research examines natural variation in abiotic stress tolerance of model grasses (Brachypodium distachyon and Setaria viridis) using both commercial and low-cost high-throughput phenotyping tools ( With Noah Fahlgren, she started a Maker Group at the Danforth Center that develops research tools and and engages the community through outreach activities.

Noah Fahlgren is the Director of Bioinformatics at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, and was previously a USDA-NIFA postdoctoral fellow. A major focus of his research utilizes natural variation, combined with high-throughput genotyping and phenotyping, to identify the genetic basis of traits in potential biofuel crop systems such as Sorghum bicolor and Camelina sativa. With Malia he develops image and data analysis tools for high-throughput phenotyping ( He also works with Dmitri and Malia to engage the community in plant and computer science through activities involving the Danforth Center Outreach and Maker groups.

Dmitri A. Nusinow is an Assistant Member at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. His research focuses on the role of clock and light signaling pathways in plant responses to the environment. After attending an awesome talk by Roger Hangarter while a graduate student at UC San Francisco, Dmitri switched organisms to work on circadian rhythms in plants as a postdoc with Steve A. Kay, then at UC San Diego. He works with Malia and Noah on various Maker and Raspberry Pi based educational and experimental projects.

Molecular control of plant shoot architecture: How do plants achieve their form and stature?, by Agustín Zsögön and Lázaro Eustáquio Pereira Peres

The astonishing variety of plant forms found in nature is not only pleasing to the human eye, but also of paramount importance for nourishing, sheltering and clothing. Plant architecture, or the three-dimensional organization of the plant body, is clearly under genetic control, but also heavily influenced and altered by environmental factors. The last few years have shown a growing interest in the study and manipulation of plant architecture, as it is now considered a potentially rewarding target for plant breeding. Alterations in the shoot architecture of wheat and rice were the touchstone of the Green Revolution, allowing greater response to fertilizers and increase in yield by changing plant size and vegetative-to-reproductive relationships.

Ongoing research is unveiling the molecular regulation of plant form and size and will allow the “tailoring‟ of crop species to suit specific agricultural requirements. Understanding the genetic basis of plant shoot architecture is a core skill in the portfolio of any plant biology student. We believe this is a particularly appealing topic as it lies in the intersection between plant development, molecular genetics and ecology.architecture

Agustín Zsögön is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Plant Biology at the Federal University of Viçosa, in Brazil. He received a PhD in Plant Sciences from the Australian National University and was tenured in 2015, after postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Sydney and the University of São Paulo. His main interest is the relationship between plant form and function, with emphasis on the genetic manipulation of plant growth habit and leaf architecture. Tomato and Capsicum spp. are used in his lab as biological models. He maintains active collaborations with leading laboratories in Europe and the United States.

Lázaro Eustáquio Pereira Peres is an Associate Professor at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, where he also received his PhD. His main research interest is the hormonal control of plant development, using tomato as a model. Work in his lab focuses on the intriguing capacity of plants to form organs (shoots and roots) during their life cycle, which are controlled by genes of organogenetic competence. He is also engaged in understanding the development of glandular trichomes, leaf structures which produce many compounds of economic interest. He has established and curates a large collection of induced mutants, natural genetic variation and transgenic plants in the model system tomato cv. Micro-Tom and has distributed this valuable resource to researchers around the world.

Plant Responses to Drought and Global Climate Change by Gloria Muday, Bethany Pan, and Parastou Ranjbar

This teaching tool addresses the effects of global climate change, drought, and water deficit on plant structure and function and how plant scientists are working to develop agricultural practices and plant species that are better adapted to these stresses. Global temperature increases are expected to amplify the severity of drought and water deficit in the near future world-wide. Students will learn how plants utilize water and regulate its uptake and release and how drought conditions impact these processes. The student will learn the mechanism by which hormones and genes regulate these plant survival responses to harsh environments. The teaching tool will include examples of how plants are affected by global warming and drought and how this insight can be used for breeding and genetically engineering plants that are more drought-tolerant. Finally, the teaching tool will be accompanied by an active learning exercise for students to weigh traditional breeding and genetic engineering approaches for improving drought tolerance.


Gloria Muday (left) is a Professor in the Department of Biology at Wake Forest University. Her research examines how the highly plastic response of root development is modulated by environmental conditions and how appropriate root architecture and hormone signaling pathways that control this architecture enable plants to thrive when water is limited. Her laboratory studies how auxin and ethylene control root development and examines how flavonoid antioxidants modulate levels of stress- and hormone-regulated synthesis of reactive oxygen species to control root and pollen development, and guard cell signaling.

Par Ranjbar (middle) and Bethany Pan (right) enrolled in a Plant Physiology and Development course taught by Gloria Muday in the fall of 2015, as part of their undergraduate Biology BS degree at Wake Forest University, in which plant responses to the environment was a course theme. Bethany and Par worked on a final class project focused on drought and global climate change in which they examined how water limitation affects plant growth and development, as well as the ecological and agricultural implications of changing temperature and water availability. As this Plant Physiology and Development course extensively utilized Teaching Tools in Plant Biology as a central resource, they constructed a slide set and summary document modeled after a Teaching Tool on this topic as a final class project. This team will create a final Teaching Tool by polishing and extending this project to provide other students material to understand how global climate change impacts plant growth and development and how plant researchers are working to develop plants resistant to these environmental stresses.

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