Photo by David Cowardin

More resilient crops
UMD grad student Mady Larson wants to apply his research on drought-tolerant plants to agricultural crops

A mix of blue and red light spills from a small, otherwise dark room in the Heikkila Chemistry and Advanced Materials Science building on the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) campus. Inside, colored lights hang above small petri dishes containing sections of sorghum bicolor, a drought-tolerant plant that’s closely related to corn.

Mady Larson, a chemistry master’s student, is studying what causes the plant to produce a waxy coating that makes it more tolerant to drought—research he began during his sophomore year as a chemistry and biochemistry undergraduate student at UMD.

“One really interesting thing we noticed was the gradient of wax occurrence,” he says. “Where tissue recently emerged, it essentially had no wax on it. The tissue that had been exposed to light for a long time had a lot of wax on it. We did experiments to validate the observation that those wax blooms, which are a drought-tolerance mechanism, are indeed light-inducible.”

Larson has been testing whether certain genes regulate wax production. He is also looking at interactions between proteins that are involved in the signaling pathway, which tells the plant to produce the waxy coating.

The ultimate goal, Larson says, is to transfer those traits found in sorghum bicolor into agricultural crops to reduce the amount of water needed for irrigation. A recipient of the Moses Passer Graduate Fellowship in Chemistry and several undergraduate scholarships, Larson credits such support for making this work happen.

“My time here at UMD wouldn’t have been possible without them,” he says. “They have allowed me to think more creatively when it comes to solving scientific problems and come up with unique solutions to questions that haven’t been answered yet.”

Although there is still work to be done before he is able to transfer sorghum bicolor’s drought-tolerant traits, Larson recognizes the potential of his project. 

“Getting the opportunity to make true discoveries and uncover information that has not been known before has been a really unique feeling and has brought me more satisfaction than anything I’ve ever done,” he says.

Larson’s research experience at UMD “really transformed my confidence as a scientist,” he says.

After completing his Master of Science degree in chemistry at UMD, Larson hopes to pursue a PhD and someday run a lab of his own, continuing to work on climate-related research.

Support the work of UMD students like Mady Larson.

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