When Blake Meyers, a 31-year-old postdoc at UC Davis’ department of vegetable crops, told his father about his recent NSF grant to study gene expression patterns in Arabidopsis, the elder Dr. Meyers, an English professor at the College of William and Mary, was taken aback. “My dad was impressed at the amount of money, because in English not many people get almost $1 million for their research,” says Meyers.
“I’m the black sheep in the family,” he adds. “Everyone else is in humanities.”
Yet it should have come as no surprise to his parents when he went astray and grew into a plantophile. At age five, Blake was helping his mother tend her vegetable garden at their Williamsburg, Va., home. “I liked zinnias a lot,” he says. “They were big and fast-growing and had a lot variation in color.” While an undergrad at the University of Chicago, he spent a summer working on an organic vegetable and cut-flower farm in Missouri.
Today Meyers spends his time with weeds instead, namely the model organism Arabidopsis. He works with Richard Michelmore, who was also his PhD advisor, to study the function of some 165 NBS-LRR-encoding genes involved in disease resistance. “The really interesting thing about these genes is that they seem to be able to recognize viruses, bacteria, nematodes, aphids, fungi — you name it,” says Meyers. Each gene is tuned to spot a particular strain of a particular pathogen. “The long-term goal is to construct novel resistance genes for crops,” he says.
Until now the project relied solely on Affymetrix chips to categorize overexpressed genes’ expression patterns. But Meyers, familiar with Lynx’s MPSS bead technology for high-resolution expression profiling, wanted to try it. “The quality of the data is really extraordinary,” he says. “Microarrays can’t even come close.”
In October, Meyers landed an NSF grant to use the MPSS expression profiling services to create a publicly available genome-wide Arabidopsis expression database, a first for plants. Out of the two-year, $952,000 grant, $560,000 will go to Lynx for its services.
Although Arabidopsis holds “a special place in my heart,” says Meyers, his real interest lies in applied systems such as crops. So far he has worked on wildflowers, lettuce, and maize. His true love? The grape. “It’s got a lot of interesting biology, a lot of wild cultivars, complex genetics,” he says. “And you have great output: wine.”
— Aaron J. Sender