The molecular lives of plants

This exercise is a part of Educator Guide: SN 10: Scientists to Watch / View Guide

Based on the article Photosynthesis reinventedabout Chong Liu:

1. What personal characteristics and decisions helped make Chong Liu a successful scientist?

Possible student response: Chong Liu became a successful scientist, in part, by asking questions “beyond the scope of what he needed to know,” looking for a challenging and important problem to solve, trying new solutions to previously discovered problems and operating at the less-explored boundary between chemistry and microbiology.

2. What inspired Chong Liu to become a scientist?

Possible student response: Learning chemistry in high school and wanting to go beyond what he was being taught as an undergraduate inspired Liu to become a scientist. He liked research because it allowed him to find the answers to his own questions.

3. What was the objective of Chong Liu’s research that was reported in Science in 2016? What is the objective of the research he is currently conducting in his lab at UCLA?

Possible student response: By developing new catalysts, Liu created an artificial photosynthetic system that is more efficient than some natural or previous artificial photosynthetic systems. Ultimately, this system could be used to turn energy from the sun into fuel while also removing carbon dioxide from air. At the University of California, Los Angeles, Liu is currently trying to determine the symbiotic relationship between microbes and soil. Eventually, Liu would like to mimic microbes’ chemical reactions that occur in soil.

4. What helped inspire and define Chong Liu’s research topics?

Possible student response: Liu’s artificial photosynthesis research was inspired by the chemical reactions leaves use to make food, as well as his knowledge of an attempt to build a life-support system for manned space missions in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Had the support system worked, it would have turned astronauts’ exhaled carbon dioxide into food using specialized bacteria and inorganic materials.

5. How does this work differ from natural photosynthesis? Be as specific about the science involved as possible.

Possible student response: In natural photosynthesis, bacteria-like organelles, called chloroplasts, in plant cells absorb light energy and use that energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, and then combine the hydrogen with carbon dioxide to make high-energy molecules like sugar. In the artificial photosynthetic system, chemical catalysts use light energy absorbed by solar panels to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Bacteria then combine the hydrogen with carbon dioxide from air to make high-energy molecules such as isopropanol.

6. What are some ways in which Chong Liu’s research could be applied outside of the lab?

Possible student response: Liu and colleagues used the photosynthetic setup and different bacteria to turn nitrogen into ammonia for fertilizer. It could lead to a more sustainable approach to producing fertilizer, which is important for agriculture.

7. What overall STEM field(s) does this research belong to? What other types of STEM careers could utilize the STEM field(s) covered in the article?

Possible student response: The research covers fields in chemistry (for the catalysts) and microbiology (for the bacteria). Chemists can have careers creating molecules, ranging from drugs to clothing dyes, or measuring natural or artificial molecules. Microbiologists can have careers ranging from detecting and treating infections to genetically engineering useful microbes.

Based on the article How plants hunt waterabout José Dinneny:

1. What personal characteristics and decisions helped make José Dinneny a successful scientist?

Possible student response: Dinneny attributes his success as a scientist to hard work and his determination to be intellectually challenged in his classes. He was also recognized for operating at the boundary between molecular biology and agricultural plant biology, and for developing new tools to measure plant root growth.

2. What inspired José Dinneny to become a scientist?

Possible student response: Dinneny realized his own science talent during his Advanced Placement biology class. He was the only person in his class who knew the answer to a question about DNA. Once he gained confidence in his own science ability, Dinneny started pushing himself by taking more advanced classes.

3. What was the inspiration that helped define José Dinneny’s research topic?

Possible student response: For much of his childhood, Dinneny enjoyed learning about the ocean and its “strange” deep-sea creatures. When Dinneny was older, he found that plants were just as “alien-like” as the deep-sea creatures. He was interested to know how plants seemingly made coherent decisions while growing without a nervous system or a brain.

4. What was José Dinneny’s objective of his research?

Possible student response: His general objective was to study and explain how plant roots sense and grow toward water. More specifically, Dinneny wanted to determine how plants react on a cellular level to their environment.

5. What new method did he develop for his research?

Possible student response: Dinneny created two-dimensional root systems using plants genetically engineered to glow as different genes turned on. He took computer scans of the roots while they grew over the course of many days. They called the method GLO-Roots.

6. What overall STEM field(s) does this research belong to? What other types of STEM careers could utilize the STEM field(s) covered in the article?

Possible student response: The research covers molecular biology and botany. Molecular biologists can pursue a wide range of careers, from studying how certain genes and proteins work to genetically engineering entirely new genes. Botanists can pursue careers ranging from the basic science of how plants function to applied research to improve agricultural crops.

7. After reading both articles, how are these two scientists similar?

Possible student response: Both scientists have drawn inspiration from the molecular lives of plants. The scientists are also similar in that they are extremely self-motivated and are especially driven by new challenges.

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