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The Washington Research Foundation Fellowship

Hannah Jordt, Biology - 2009-10 WRF/Space Grant

Hannah Jordt photoMy experience in the biological sciences began formally in the third grade, when I, and a dozen fellow homeschoolers, spent a year dissecting such animals as sharks, pigeons, and fetal pigs in my family’s garage. That class led me, the very same year, to check out every library book I could find on Charles Darwin. I thought: how great would that be to travel around the world, study nature, and come up with cool theories like evolution? Yet while these early introductions quickly led to a persistent interest in all things biology, a career in scientific discovery didn’t occur to me. I certainly never imagined it was possible to uncover new insights into the way we understand evolution.

All that changed when I entered the University of Washington. Surrounded by cutting edge research, excellent faculty, and interesting classes, I discovered a new culture I’d never been exposed to: a certain way of asking, answering, and communicating scientific questions.  Today, I am happily on my way to becoming a part of that culture through my own research in the Queitsch Lab in the Department of Genome Sciences. In following with my old fascination of Darwin and evolution, I am working on understanding some of the molecular processes that contribute to phenotypic robustness and facilitate evolution. This work has been both exciting and challenging. More than anything, it has given me the confidence to pursue a career in the biological sciences. I feel very fortunate to have the support of a Washington Research Foundation Fellowship to carry on with my work in the Queitsch Lab.

In the future I hope to continue research in the biological sciences, while also incorporating a newfound interest in teaching. Perhaps eventually I will travel around the world, study nature, and come up with cool theories like evolution.

Mentor: Christine Quesitsch, Genome Sciences

Project Title: Phenotypic Robustness of Molecular Mechanisms and Evolutionary Impact

Abstract: A considerable amount of genetic variation exists among organisms of the same species, yet the variability of their phenotype is minimal. The protein Hsp90 has been shown to play a role in maintaining this phenotypic robustness by buffering genetic variation and keeping it phenotypically silent. When Hsp90 function is decreased by mutation or environmental stress, previously cryptic genetic variation is expressed, thereby significantly affecting phenotype. The existence of frequently occurring cryptic genetic variation together with a plausible natural release mechanism - environmental stress - likely facilitates evolutionary processes. Hsp90 allows phenotypes to remain robust over 1) the course of a lifetime, e.g. in the face of environmental changes such as weather or disease, and 2) over many generations, e.g. in the face of inherited genetic variants or mutations. Based on the properties of Hsp90, I hypothesize that there are other proteins that similarly maintain phenotypic robustness and I hope to identify the genes encoding them. The Queitsch lab has identified several candidate genes in the small RNA pathway that maintain robustness in seedling traits of the plant Arabidopsis thaliana. To date, I have focused on creating conditional knock-out mutants for these candidate genes. Once I have characterized these mutants, I will test their ability to maintain phenotypic robustness in and buffer genetic variation. My experiments will compare many individual Arabidopsis plants of precise genotypes in different environments under highly controlled conditions. By analyzing the resulting phenotypes and associating them with the tested genotypes, I will be able to determine if my conditional mutants disrupt phenotypic robustness and release cryptic genetic variants. My work will contribute to a better understanding of the molecular mechanisms contributing to phenotypic robustness and it will yield insights into the molecular underpinning of evolutionary processes.