Solving intellectual puzzles is a rewarding activity for Bruce McClure, MU Professor of Biochemistry, as he seeks to unravel the mystery of plant mating. If McClure and his team of researchers can crack the code and understand how breeding barriers work within plants, they will be one step closer to their goal of “making the world better through agriculture.”
McClure shows us his greenhouse and demonstrates how to pollinate a plant.
Currently, McClure is teaching in MU’s medical school. Before that, his undergraduate courses incorporated his plant research. “That is why it’s worthwhile for students to come to a research university,” says McClure. “Like the students, I am struggling to learn things that I don’t know. I can empathize with how hard it is to learn things, and I can share strategies to learn.”
Bruce McClure studies plant mating. Similarly to all sexually reproducing organisms, plants devise ways to identify appropriate mates. The penalty for choosing a partner who is either too closely related or too genetically different is unhealthy offspring. Sound familiar? The same rules apply to human reproduction, with one major difference—plants can’t move around or talk. McClure and his fellow researchers approach plant mating with a scientific lens and study the type of communication that takes place within these organisms.
Because plants can’t move around to find suitable mates, they depend on other forces, such as birds, bees, and wind, to bring them pollen. They can make themselves attractive to one kind of animal versus another, but they don’t have control over whose pollen is transferred to them. McClure is trying to understand how plants are able to screen all the pollen that comes to them and then identify the best choice.
McClure says that choosing plants for his research requires much consideration. Originally, he studied the Nicotiana genus, relatives of tobacco, but when those plants proved too difficult for some experiments he started concentrating on tomato relatives. Currently, McClure has begun work on potatoes.
The potato is an essential global food source and the world’s number one non-grain food commodity. However, this valuable food is vulnerable to pests and disease. McClure wants to figure out how to move disease-resistant genes from wild potatoes to cultivated ones. Such a cross would lead to increased crop productivity and immense benefits for farmers.
The main challenge, says McClure, is keeping his plants healthy and happy. The sleeping bag he keeps in his office is evidence of the constant worry that accompanies his work. If somebody doesn’t show up to water the plants, he warns, “you come back and the greenhouse is toast, and in many cases the plants I’ve got are irreplaceable.”
McClure aims to understand how species recognition functions in plants. He sees his work as an intellectual puzzle, and puts much effort into figuring out how these mating mechanisms work. If he can figure out how to remove the mating barrier between incompatible plants, then farmers will see an increase in healthy, productive plants.
McClure always wanted to help the world through science, but plant genetics wasn’t part of his original grand plan. After college and a environmental biochemistry major, he took a position with a diet geneticist seeking to modify the nutritional value of maize. This job exposed McClure to genetic analysis and helped him realize that he could have an impact on the world through agriculture.