By Mariah Cox
Preparing home-cooked meals regularly and maintaining houseplants can oftentimes be too time-consuming for stressed-out college students, but not for Ethan Myers.
At Myers’ student apartment you can find a bonsai tree and a plethora of herbs such as catnip, basil, mint and even some pepper plants. This love of plants comes from his childhood when he spent his summers helping his grandma plant shrubs, flowers and trees in her garden.
Using the herbs she grew in her garden, Myers would help his grandma cook Thanksgiving dinner and appetizers for her game club called ‘the game girls.’ Working alongside her in the garden and the kitchen, all while sharing a common passion for nature, formed the strong relationship they still have today.
“Me and my grandma are tight,” said the biochemistry undergrad.
His knack for gardening as well as his interest in plants from a scientific perspective led him to pursue a degree in biochemistry and pick up an independent research project in the Jay Thelen lab in Bond LSC.
“My grandpa was a nuclear physicist and so having that science background from him has been interesting and fulfilling to see why things in the wild are the way they are and how they can be altered in a science setting,” Myers said.
Working with post-doctoral fellow Eric Fedosejevs, Myers pursues two hypotheses to increase the amount of oil production in soybeans.
The first looks to overexpress a subunit of Acetyl-CoA Carboxylase, a biotin-dependent enzyme that provides the malonyl-CoA substrate for the biosynthesis of fatty acids. By overexpressing this subunit, Myers anticipates finding an increased amount of oil production in the test plants.
Another hypothesis looks to under-express a family of proteins that are negative regulators of acetyl-Coa carboxylase. By under-expressing biotin associated domain containing proteins (BADCs) and inhibiting the gene that encodes BADCs, the protein can’t bind, and the plant will be able to produce more fatty acids.
Soybean oil is an environmentally friendly, renewable alternative to petroleum diesel. According to the United Soybean Board, biodiesel reduces greenhouse gas emissions by up to 86 percent.
By fortifying soybeans to produce more oil, less land mass, labor and other environmental resources, such as water and minerals, are needed.
“It’s important to be able to use resources to their fullest potential,” Myers said. “Soybeans are used for protein in the form of tofu and edamame as well as biofuels and industrial lubricants. Because of the increase in the world’s population, there has been a throttle on resources. By modifying plants to be more efficient, we can mitigate some of the stress on the planet.”
In other words, if we can get more out of one plant while using fewer resources, it creates a more sustainable supply while lessening the impacts on the environment.
In his spare time, Myers enjoys cooking as another passion. His interest in food really grew when he began working in restaurants almost 10 years ago.
“I really enjoy cooking for myself and my friends,” Myers said. “I use the herbs that I grow in my backyard. I made a homemade chicken alfredo pizza this past Sunday for a Game of Thrones watch party.”
The next step in Myers’ life likely leads to a doctoral program elsewhere. He is currently applying to Ph.D. programs at the University of California, Davis, University of Texas, Austin, University of Colorado, Denver and Michigan State University. In the future, he hopes to be a biochemistry professor and instill in his students the same sense of wonder that he has in his research.
“In this day and age, there are so many things that you can just Google and have an answer in seconds,” Myers said. “But there are so many questions out there where there is no answer on Google and you have to make your own understanding of things. It’s become so easy to have an answer at your fingertips, but it’s so much more valuable to actually figure something out on your own.”