March 9, 2022 - Podcast

Episode 239 — Building a better tomato, and open data

Evolutionary biologist Matt Gibson, a PhD student at IU Bloomington, is on a quest to tackle important scientific questions in his field, while also trying to find ways to solve food insecurity caused by climate change. He uses population genetics and computing to understand how genes help plants adapt to certain climatic variation such as temperature, sunlight and moisture level changes. His research focuses on one specific plant species, which is a wild relative of the domesticated tomato. Native to Ecuador and Peru, this species inhabits hot, dry and salty coastal habitats as well as wet, cool inland habitats at mid elevation in the Andes Mountains. These extreme environmental differences represent an important selective gradient in the species, which Gibson hopes to use to learn what genes and traits are under selection and how the different populations evolved to occupy such different habitats. While adaptation is generally considered to be the fundamental mechanism responsible for much of the biodiversity in the world, Gibson says we still have a poor grasp of its genetic basis in most species. By using a wild tomato species as his research model, he hopes his findings might help better understand climate change’s effects on crop productivity. Gibson says the long-term goal of this project is to evaluate the effect these genetic variants have on tomato plants through experiments with plants grown under manipulated environmental conditions. His work will also test whether genetic variants identified as under selection have measurable effects on survival. Gibson says variants that have significant effects on survival in, for example, a hot or dry environment, will then be strong candidates for use in breeding experiments that could improve drought resiliency in the domesticated tomato.

In other news, IUPUI researchers Andrea Copeland and Ayoung Yoon are working to develop public library services relevant to open data. Open data -- which allows public access to information about a wide variety of topics, including scientific research and clinical trials – is freely available online for anyone to use, modify and share. Many media outlets and research centers maintain open data sites. Copeland and Yoon are focusing on community open data engagement, which they say is the first of its kind in the field of public libraries. They are working to develop a model for community open data engagement, or mCode, which will focus on data services provided by public libraries to promote open data access, literacy and use. The researchers have included community partners in their work, allowing their research to evolve alongside local data practices. This project builds upon their previous research and examines how public libraries enable patrons to work with open data and the ways they provide services using it. They hope their project will fill existing gaps between public libraries that are actively participating in open data and those that are not yet able to due to capacity and resources.