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New Wake Forest students work with biology professor Gloria Muday (center) in her research garden on campus as part of the SPARC volunteer service program.


Green fruit, deep roots

Biologist researches how mutants might improve tomato crops

Wake Forest University’s Campus Garden overflows with tomatoes. But, with names like Never Ripe and Green Ripe, many will never be the rich, red orbs you’d slice up for sandwiches. These tomatoes – mutant varieties bred for research – will help Gloria K. Muday, Ph.D., a professor of biology, determine how the hormone ethylene can inhibit or aid root development.

And that, she hopes, will lead to stronger crops of summer-ripe tomatoes for farmers and backyard gardeners in years to come.

“If we can encourage tomato plants to form deeper root systems, those plants will be able to take in more water and pick up nutrients more effectively,” Muday said.

Muday, Sangeeta Negi, a post-doctoral research associate, and recent doctoral graduate Poornima Sukumar have had their research about mutant green tomatoes published in The Plant Journal, a peer-reviewed publication. Now, post-doctoral researchers in the Muday laboratory, Gregory Maloney and Hanya Chrispeels, are growing more colorful tomato varieties – reds, browns and purples, many of them heirlooms – to see how compounds such as flavonoids affect the hormones that stimulate root growth.

Heirlooms like those will find their way into elementary, middle and high school classes around Winston-Salem this fall, when Muday, Chrispeels; Michelle Klosterman, Ph.D., assistant professor of science education; and Carole Browne, Ph.D., biology professor, begin a project funded by the American Society of Plant Biology. They will use heirloom tomatoes to teach students how genetics leads to the vast array of different varieties of tomatoes, with genetics controlling fruit size, shape, color and, most importantly, taste.




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