Student researcher on leading edge of nanoparticle studies
Published January 24, 2014
NDSU senior Hannah Passolt is working on a project that is venturing into a very young field of research. The study about how crops’ roots absorb a microscopic nutrient might be described as being ahead of the cutting-edge.
In a laboratory of NDSU’s Wet Ecosystem Research Group, in collaboration with plant sciences, Passolt is exploring how two varieties of wheat take up extremely tiny pieces of zinc, called nanoparticles, from the soil.
As a point of reference, the particles Passolt is examining are measured at below 30 nanometers. A nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter.
“It’s the mystery of nanoparticles that is fascinating to me,” explained the zoology major from Fargo. “The behavior of nanoparticles in the environment is largely unknown as it is a very new, exciting science. This type of project has never been done before.”
In Passolt’s research project, plants supplied by NDSU wheat breeders are grown in a hydroponic solution, with different amounts of zinc oxide nanoparticles introduced into the solution.
Compared to naturally occurring zinc, engineered zinc nanoparticles can have very different properties. They can be highly reactive, meaning they can injure cells and tissues, and may cause genetic damage. The plants are carefully observed for any changes in growth rate and appearance. When the plants are harvested, researchers will analyze them for actual zinc content.
“Zinc is essential for a plant’s development. However, in excess, it can be harmful,” Passolt said. “In one of my experiments, we are using low and high levels of zinc, and the high concentrations are showing detrimental effects. However, we will have to analyze the plants for zinc concentrations to see if there have been any effects from the zinc nanoparticles.”
Passolt has conducted undergraduate research with the Wet Ecosystem Research Group for the past two years. She said working side-by-side with Donna Jacob, research assistant professor of biological sciences; Marinus Otte; professor of biological sciences; and Mohamed Mergoum, professor of plant sciences, has proven to be challenging, invigorating and rewarding.
“I’ve gained an incredible skill set – my research experience has built upon itself. I’ve gotten to the point where I have a pretty big role in an important study. To me, that is invaluable,” Passolt said. “To put effort into something that goes for the greater good of science is a very important lesson to learn.”
According to Jacob, Passolt volunteered two years ago, and she has since become an important member of the group. She has assisted graduate students and worked on her own small project, the results of which she presented at regional and international scientific conferences. “We offered her this large, complex experiment, and she’s really taken charge,” Jacob said, noting Passolt assisted with the project’s design, handled care of the plants and applied the treatments. When the project is completed, Passolt will publish a peer-reviewed scientific article.
“There is nothing like working on your own experiment to fully understand science,” Jacob said. “Since coming to NDSU in 2006, the Wet Ecosystem Research Group has worked with more than 50 undergraduates, possible only because of significant support from the North Dakota IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence program, known as INBRE, of the NIH National Center for Research Resources.”
Jacob said seven undergraduate students from the lab have worked on their own research projects and presented their work at conferences. Two articles, so far, have been published by undergraduate co-authors. “I believe the students gain valuable experience and an understanding of what scientists really do during fieldwork and in the laboratory,” Jacob said. “They see it is vastly different from book learning, and that scientists use creativity and ingenuity daily. I hope they come away from their experience with some excitement about research, in addition to a better resume.”
Passolt anticipates the results of her work could be used in a broader view of our ecosystem. She notes zinc nanoparticles are an often-used ingredient in such products as lotions, sunscreens and certain drug delivery systems. “Zinc nanoparticles are being introduced into the environment,” she said. “It gets to plants at some point, so we want to see if zinc nanoparticles have a positive or negative effect, or no effect at all.”
Passolt is uncertain about her career goals, suggesting her future may lie in consulting or education. But, her research experience is certainly influencing her aspirations.
“I enjoy studying ecology, nature and the way things work. I love sharing with people how everything works together as a system,” she said. “I just want a career where I use the skills I’ve learned both as a student and in the lab.”
The research was supported by National Institutes of Health grant P20 RR016471 from the INBRE Program of the National Center for Research Resources. Jacob also received a grant from the NDSU Development Foundation’s Gordon A. Larson Agricultural Research Endowment, number FAR0021337, to work on nanoparticles. Mergoum received a local grant number 18951.