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The distinctive impact of undergraduate research

October 5, 2023

Dakota State University does not have an agriculture program, but that hasn’t prevented undergraduate students from conducting groundbreaking agricultural research in alfalfa.

“My undergraduate research project mentored by Dr. Sathoff was the highlight of my bachelor’s degree,” said Jay Alexander, 2023 DSU graduate. “I’m applying to graduate schools, and it seems that my participation in research has helped me gain interest from research professors.”

Alexander and Dr. Andrew Sathoff presented their alfalfa gene research at the National Plant Health Conference in Denver in August.

“Presenting was a new experience, and thankfully, I wasn’t very shy,” Alexandar said. “I received great feedback from those more experienced on the topic, as well as great involvement and in-depth questions.”

Undergraduate research opportunities aren’t unique to Sathoff’s classroom, as Dakota State has a long history of undergraduate research projects, which bring important benefits to the field and the students.

“Completing undergraduate research gave me the ability to finally showcase my analytical abilities and engage in independent interests outside of class,” Alexander said.

“These experiences for students can be so impactful,” Sathoff said. “Students hear about scientific research and read it in class, but my research students are performing the research and presenting it to other experts in the field.”

It’s a great way to see the importance of research. “You can see there is a community that really values this research.”

The value of Alexander’s research was evident at the conference.

“Our poster got a lot of attention because many conference attendees were interested in learning how to use Blast2GO, a bioinformatics software,” Sathoff said.

Blast2GO is a tool used for functional annotation and analysis of genomic datasets. Alexander used this software in their research to find areas of similarity between gene sequences. It uses databases with different genes to find the functions the genes perform.

Sathoff has been researching Aphanomyces at DSU since 2019. Some alfalfa cultivars are resistant to the disease, while others are susceptible, but it’s unknown what causes the resistance. By using this tool, they could identify genes resistant to diseases like Aphanomyces by identifying the gene functions.

“The goal of this work was to identify the genes associated with resistance to these diseases,” Sathoff said.

Sathoff and Alexander found that many genes involved were classic resistance genes, called Nucleotide Binding Sites Leucine Rich Repeats (NBS-LRR).

This information can be shared with plant breeders, who can use that knowledge to introduce the resistant genes into new lines of alfalfa.

Attending conferences like the National Plant Health Conference enables them to collaborate and share their findings with other researchers. There are few alfalfa pathologists in the world, so collaboration is key to discovery.

Some of this work will be combined with other work that Dr. Deborah Samac, Sathoff’s former advisor at the University of Minnesota. Samac provided the DNA sequence data set for this research project.

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