Published 10 November 2022 by Paola Libertad García Medel
The Mystery of Plant Cells
Paola Libertad García Medel explores the DNA replication of plants – which is a fairly new field in biochemistry. In summer 2022, the researcher from Mexico who is currently doing a research stay in Madrid/Spain, participated in the 71st Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. Learn more about her research and career.
Plants are exposed to various weather conditions. They withstand even storms, heavy rain, UV light or other stress factors – because they have the ability to replicate their genetic information. That’s similar to human cells. But the replication of plant DNA is not completely understood by now. We need to learn what is happening inside the plants.
Insights Into Plants DNA
Further knowledge about the DNA replication in plants could help to increase food security by improving crops and yields. If we learn how to modify the DNA, we can create new tools to increase harvest. That’s why I am exploring plant DNA with a biochemical approach. It was not easy to find a group in structural biology that is dealing with plant DNA and a focus on proteins. There is just a small community distributed around the world working on this subject.
The Symphony of Molecules
My first moment with science was the National Olympiad of Biology in Mexico in which I participated during school days. I detected my passion for genetics, molecular biology, and biochemistry. That’s why I decided to study biochemistry – to explore the structures of molecules. The way the molecules are created is like a kind of symphony.
I am PhD student of Advanced Genomics Unit CINVESTAV in Mexico and will complete my PhD about plant cells within the next months. As one of my co-advisors is from Centro de Biología Molecular Severo Ochoa in Madrid, and the other from CINVESTAV, my thesis was performed 50/50, Mexico/Spain.
The first step is to generate the DNA primer in order to replicate the molecules. Then I conduct tests and compare it to other proteins in various organisms. In that way I see the evolution of the proteins. I form the biochemical reaction by using radioactive assays. Sometimes, it’s really challenging, but I love to work in the lab. As I am often running experiments that take a lot of time, I use these waiting hours for reading and planning the next trials.
The Challenge of Exploring New Fields
Since just few people are working on plant DNA, one challenge I face is the lack of information compared to human cells. For example, the operating principle of mitochondria – the energy generators in cells – is still a mystery. At the same time, I enjoy creating new knowledge. That’s what science is all about. Results of experiments are not predictable – often, I spend a lot of time looking for answers that I need to continue with the next steps.
During the COVID-19 pandemics, I was lucky to have regularly access to the lab. Of course, the slots in the laboratories were restricted and I got stuck with several experiments as I had no opportunity to repeat some of the trials. But – and that’s an advantage of working with recombinant proteins from plant cells, but obtained in bacteria – you can keep the proteins in the fridge or freezer for quite a long time. It was harder for scientists who deal with living organisms.
Current Projects and Long-term Perspectives
Currently, it’s the final phase of my PhD and I am completing the texts to submit it within the next months. Additionally, I am working on a patent for diagnostics – a tool to detect RNA viruses like SARS-Cov2. For me, this is an important shift from fundamental research to applied sciences. There are three research groups participating in this project, Mexico (our own), Spain (Centro de Biología Molecular Severo Ochoa), and Chile (Universidad Andrés Bello), supported by Organización de Estados Iberoamericanos (OEI) and I really love the collaborative work on this tool. Hopefully our idea will become reality soon. But my long-term plan is to stay in science, continue with a postdoc position and become a PI one day. There is still so much to explore in the world of plants DNA!