Plant research: It’s in her genes

Tina Le ’18 was drawn to the “magnificent camellias” in the Botanic Garden for her research in plant genetics.

By Carey Lang 

Mount Holyoke College’s long history of using its grounds as an on-campus field station began in the very earliest days of the institution. As part of the College’s strong emphasis on science, students were required to take botany, which included collecting plant samples from around campus in order to create their own herbariums

Today, with over 15 water, forest and weather monitoring stations, as well as the Botanic Garden and Project Stream of the Restoration Ecology Program, the College’s campus living laboratory offers students countless opportunities to directly apply their experiences in the classroom to interdisciplinary projects, research and independent study opportunities in the natural and built campus landscape. 

This is why, when Tina Le ’18, a biology major, was brainstorming an independent study project, she didn’t hit the stacks. She went to Talcott Greenhouse instead. 

“My research advisor suggested that I go to Talcott for inspiration,” Le said. “She said it’s one of the first places she sends students who are looking for projects.” 

Le, whose parents work in plant and flower seed distribution back home in Vietnam, knew when she entered Mount Holyoke that she had a particular interest in botany. After pursuing a summer internship with a leading U.S. horticulture company, Le was inspired to expand her experience with plant cultivation through botanical research. 

A student worker in the greenhouse introduced her to the College’s camellia collection and an idea began to, err, take root. 

The Botanic Garden is an important part of the campus living lab. Beyond simply maintaining the plants in the collection and perpetuating some of the College’s most well-known traditions, Tom Clark, the Botanic Garden’s director, noted, developing the living collection in a meaningful and purposeful way is a high priority. 

“The more diverse the collection is, the more likely it is that faculty and students will more readily engage with it,” Clark said. “Tina’s work is a great example. She was drawn to the beauty of the magnificent camellias in our indoor collection, which piqued her curiosity and inspired her project.” 

Clark has been integral in helping Le acquire leaf and stem materials from an assortment of camellias across the country. Having a variety of materials allowed for a more rigorous genetic analysis. And Le’s enthusiasm for her topic is appreciable. 

“As you can see,” she said in reference to a domestic variety of the flower Camellia japonica, “there are no observable anthers, there are only petals visible, and upon dissection, there are no reproductive structures seen at all.” 

This is significant, she explained, because of the concern that through extensive breeding, humans have selectively bred the flower for aesthetic purposes only. The domestic camellia now has many more petals than its wild counterpart but is essentially sterile, a potentially lethal outcome for any species. 

The question of how breeders, based on feedback from consumers, choose which flowers to propagate generated Le’s interest in the genetic differences between the wild and domestic varieties of Camellia japonica. Wild camellias tend to have five petals, but the petal count of cultivated strains can vary — some have as many as 200. 

As she framed and sought answers to her questions, Le developed strong relationships with Mount Holyoke faculty and staff, and planned for her future. 

In addition to Clark, Amy Frary, a professor in the biological sciences department, has mentored Le throughout her research, teaching her about the intricacies of plant genetics. 

Frary, whose courses include Plant Diversity and Evolution and a popular spring seminar called Local Flora, routinely uses the Botanic Garden as a resource to help her students gain direct experience with the plants they’re studying. 

“The Botanic Garden has been central to the project,” Frary said. “Tom contacted his counterparts at Mobile Botanical Gardens and Arnold Arboretum, who sent us leaf tissue from a variety of camellias, including the wild type. That tissue, combined with samples collected from the Talcott Greenhouse, make up the specimens Tina is using.” 

Once they had the specimens, Frary was able to help Le identify the gene she is now trying to understand. 

Now, Le aims to amplify, or replicate, this gene using techniques common in molecular genetics. After amplification, she will know for sure whether the different appearances of the flower are due to a mutation in the petal gene, or if the phenotype is controlled by a different genetic sequence. 

“The amount of support that I've had at Mount Holyoke is just incredible,” said Le, who plans to pursue her doctorate in molecular biology. “I genuinely appreciate these research opportunities, and I am fully aware of the amount of autonomy in research I am being exposed to here.” 

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