UMBC logo

Undergraduate Researchers

Margarita Tsionsky, Biology

Characterization of SUP3 Homologues in Arabidopsis Defense

Faculty Mentor: Dr. Hua Lu

Plant diseases have devastating effects on world agriculture. Effective control of plant diseases depends on a thorough understanding of disease resistance mechanisms. It remains challenging to identify genes controlling plant defense and to characterize the functions of these genes. The acd6-1 SUPPRESSOR 3 (SUP3)gene was identified in a large genetic screen aimed to uncover novel defense genes. SUP3 belongs to a small protein family previously shown to have anion transporter (ANTR) activities. There are six members in the SUP3 family; however, physiological functions of these members have not been well understood. We found that SUP3, previously designated as ANTR1, was a negative regulator acting in the key defense signaling pathway mediated by salicylic acid. To begin to understand functions of other members in the SUP3 family in plant defense, we used a reverse genetic approach to identify mutants for all five SUP3 homologues (designated ANTR2-5). So far we have identified mutants in four of the five antr genes. We will further assess the defense phenotypes conferred by these mutants. Our work will reveal if members of the SUP3 family regulate plant innate immunity.

How did you find your mentor for this project?

I started as a T.A. for Microbiology summer after my freshman year; during the semester of teaching I met a doctoral student. She referred me to Dr. Lu who hired me first to help out with routine tasks in the lab. After a couple of months she began training me for research.

How did you know this was the project you wanted to do?

Dr. Lu’s lab has worked with one gene belonging to the family that I am researching, and it was shown to have defense functions. My mentor and I agreed that if one gene in the family has a specific function, the others may have similar functions, and I had the time to look into the family in more detail.

Is this your first independent research project?

No. I started with a different set of genes and mutants when I first started research in Dr. Lu’s lab. When the results of that project stopped looking promising, my mentor and I decided it was time to change direction.

Do you get course credit for this work?

Absolutely, I have been getting one credit hour a semester for the last three semesters under BIOL499. 

How much time do you put into it?

I worked almost full time during the summer and winter semesters. During the school year I have a very busy schedule but I try to put in between five and eight hours each week. Some weeks are slower than others, I work on plants, and they need time to grow before we can do experiments.  

You have a $1,500 Undergraduate Research Award from UMBC for your work. How did you hear about this program?

Dr. Lu has had URA winners in her lab before. When I got my own project and my understanding of the techniques was sufficient I applied.  

What academic background did you have before you started?

When I started working in Dr. Lu’s lab, I wasn’t even a Biology major. I have had taken a few biology classes, my basic lab techniques weren’t horrible because I’ve had very good lab courses throughout high school and at UMBC. After a year of working with Dr. Lu I added Biology as a second major. My first major was, and still is, Emergency Health Services.  

Was the application difficult to do?

I applied for the URA twice, first time, the application seemed impossible, but I had only been in the lab for six months at most. I came nowhere close to getting the funding. By the second year, my understanding of my projects increased and the application seemed a lot easier.  

How much did your mentor help you with this?

Dr. Lu proofread my application. She made comments and suggestions, made sure all the science was exactly on point, and told me what could be cut out and what should be added. I am very grateful to her for all the time she has spent to improve my scientific writing skills. 

What is your advice to other students about getting involved in research?

Don’t give up, and take the opportunities you have. I wasn’t sure I’d be very interested in working with plants, but as I began my research, I realized that not only were a lot of the research methods applicable to other fields, but also that my experience broadened my knowledge and understanding of modern research.  

What are your career goals?

I’m graduating in May with two BS degrees and staying another year to earn a Master’s degree in Emergency Health Services focusing on Epidemiology. Later, I plan to apply to an MD/PhD program. My EHS background makes me think that I will stay in Emergency Medicine, and my goal for the PhD is Epidemiology or Public Health. Not much plant biology in there, but I feel that my research has increased my understanding of scientific research, which is quite different from Public Health research.  

What has been the hardest part about your research?

When you work on your own project, when something goes right, you are thrilled to take credit, but when something goes wrong, you are the one who must figure out what happened. The last few months my experiments were not working too well. It took me at least two months of adjustments, consultations with lab members, and rechecking my work to figure out what exactly was going wrong.  

What was the most unexpected thing?

I am shocked at how much I have learned.  You don’t notice it until you go in to present at a conference and start talking. Even if I’m explaining something to other biology majors, it takes a while for me to catch them up on what I do and the theory of my experiments. My dad is a chemist, and sometimes he will start talking about an experiment he is designing and I am actually able to follow him…some of the time.  

How does your research relate to your work in other classes?

Biology 304 (Plant Physiology) seems to be easier for me than it is for most of my classmates. I find that my scientific writing is stronger than most other students’ since I’ve written several abstracts for my project, and Dr. Lu even makes us do a journal club over the summer which teaches us to read and analyze papers. My lab techniques are strong; I don’t worry about practical exams. Most of my biology classes refer to studying genes and pathways through mutations. That’s exactly what I do so it makes the class material more realistic.