Tameka Bailey has always loved math and science, but she never dreamed that one day she would be helping rice farmers grow better crops by studying the plant at its most fundamental molecular level.
Bailey, a Gould, Ark., native, graduated from the University of Arkansas this fall with a doctorate in cell and molecular biology. Her research focused on a certain type of proteins and the molecular mechanisms that trigger rice’s response to stressful conditions, such as drought, high salinity or a biological disease called rice blast. Understanding how plants respond to these stressors will help scientists and farmers develop better ways to grow rice in less than optimal conditions.
“The proteins have so much power in the cell, it’s amazing,” Bailey said. “They can just change the whole fate of the plant.”
Working with Yinong Yang, professor of plant pathology in the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences, who is now at Penn State University, Bailey uncovered the gene responsible for a molecular mechanism that helps regulate rice blast resistance through the production of ethylene, an organic gas found in nature.
“Tameka is an intelligent, hard-working and conscientious student. She is also very careful and meticulous in performing various molecular experiments,” Yang said. “Because of her abilities and high motivation, she was assigned to work on a very challenging and important project in my lab.”
Bailey studied proteins called mitogen-activated protein kinases. These proteins regulate the plants’ response to external stimuli, such as drought or disease. The particular type of kinase Bailey studied is the last one in a cascade of kinases that convert signals from receptors into responses from the plant.
She found that these proteins regulate the plants’ production of an acid called abscisic acid, which led to stress tolerance in drought and high salinity conditions, a trait that appears to be conserved in other types of plants. Bailey isolated and characterized these proteins, which are responsible for activating the plants’ response to stress.
To give rice plants a boost in their ability to tolerate stressful conditions, Bailey used genetic engineering to create plants that would express a great deal of the protein. To do this, she inserted extra copies of the protein kinase DNA into the DNA of a rice plant. The transgenic rice plant then expressed an abundance of that particular protein. In contrast, Bailey produced transgenic plants where the protein kinase was suppressed to see how the plants responded to stress in the absence of the protein of interest. Her studies showed that the extra boost of protein kinases led to increased drought tolerance.
“Those traits are really important to rice farmers,” Bailey said. “Making a direct contribution to this is really a plus to my work.”
“Her study contributes to our understanding of plant stress signaling mechanism and may help improve crop disease resistance and stress tolerance in the near future,” said Yang.
Bailey also has co-authored a chapter on signal transduction of rice disease resistance. Because of the strength of her research, she also was awarded a study and travel grant from the Asian Rice Foundation.
She becomes emotional when she speaks of her time in graduate school.
“This experience has changed my life,” she said. “It has allowed me to become a professional scientist.”