The Benefits of Plant Pigments
June 24, 2009
Dr. Abby Cuttriss came all the way from New Zealand to study in the lab of Lehman Professor Dr. Eleanore Wurtzel. She is working to understand how carotenoids might help crops tolerate extreme weather conditions, such as drought, which might increase as her country—and the planet—react to changes in the environment.
5 Minutes 41 Seconds
In "World of Plants," Lehman faculty share their research in the plant sciences, discussing some of the health benefits found in plants and, in some cases, what plants tell us about humans.
This is Sarah Sumler, a student at Lehman College. Dr. Abby Cuttriss came all the way from New Zealand to study in the lab of Lehman Professor Dr. Eleanore Wurtzel. The lab team, which includes scientists from India, Australia, Israel, and Sweden, is investigating the role of carotenoid pigments in human nutrition.
Carotenoids are a large family of compounds that have roles in photosynthesis and plant protection. Their pigments make the kernels yellow in an ear of corn, and turn the skin of a tomato red.
But they do a lot more than just add color. Carotenoids are precursors to vitamin A, and vitamin A deficiency is a huge problem in developing countries.
Carotenoid pigments are also critical for plant growth and viability. Understanding how the pigments are made could increase crop yield and also improve human nutrition.
Dr. Cuttriss was one of only twelve researchers from New Zealand who were awarded post-doctoral fellowships by her government in 2008.
She is working to understand how carotenoids might help crops tolerate extreme weather conditions, such as drought, which might increase as her country—and the planet—react to changes in the environment.
I'm from New Zealand originally. And I did an undergraduate degree in biochemistry there. And I developed an interest in plant biochemistry and physiology. And I ended up moving to Australia for my graduate studies.
And there I became more and more interested in pigment biosynthesis and the biochemistry of plant pigments, and I finished my Ph.D. there and was offered a job here at Lehman with Professor Wurtzel, who is an expert in pigment biosynthesis.
So there are a group of us all working on carotenoid pigments in Professor Wurtzel's lab. And we help each other and have overlapping interests. And definitely compare and contrast our results and share information with each other.
I'm interested in plant pigments for a number of reasons. Firstly, plants need them to survive. So they're basically a sunscreen for plants. They protect them from different stresses, like too much light; but also from not enough water and too much salt or any environment or stress that might kill a plant.
Then pigments are one of the ways that a plant protects itself. So without pigments, a plant dies. Also, they're beautiful. So the weird yellows and oranges are all the carotenoid pigments, which I'm interested in. Some examples of those would be the red in tomatoes, which is called lycopene, or beta-carotene from carrots.
One thing that I'm doing as part of my post-doctoral studies is I'm comparing maize, or corn plants, to a lab rat plant that we call Arabidopsis. So it's just a small weed that's been really well characterized. We know the sequence of its genome in its entirety.
And it's great to be able to compare these two diverse plants. It means that the things that are similar and the things that are very different help inform us in how carotenoids are made and how they're regulated, and how we can maybe improve food crops by comparing these two plants.
One advantage of working on maize is that it's a grass. It's a very big grass. But it's very similar to all of the other grasses, and also cereal crops. So anything that we learn in maize, first of all, is useful in and of itself because that's a food staple in a lot of Africa and Latin America. But also, we can apply that to other cereal, such as wheat, barley, rye, oats. And hopefully the information we learn from maize will help us improve food crops in general.
So we're very lucky here at Lehman College because we have our own cornfield, which is a difficult thing to do in New York City. We have space to grow ten different varieties of corn, so every summer we can conduct our experiments in a field environment without having to travel, which is very fortunate.
So the lab as a whole is primarily interested in carotenoid pigments for human nutrition purposes. So the pigments are precursors to vitamin A. And vitamin A deficiency is a huge problem in developing countries. There are 250 million children worldwide who are vitamin A deficient. And that has huge health implications.
They go blind, and eventually die. So if we can improve nutrition by understanding how these pigments are made and perhaps fortifying foods, then perhaps that will help improve this problem.
I'm very lucky to be able to conduct plant research here. Because often it's difficult to find good plant research laboratories in an urban environment. So, coming to New York has been a great move. It's dramatically different to where I grew up, which is in a very isolated part of New Zealand. So it's definitely very different. But it's been fantastic. It's such a vibrant city. And it's been extremely good fun.
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