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Going the distance

Graduate student Cece Martin has traveled hundreds of miles collecting native plant seeds – and she doesn’t even have a driver’s license.

Cece Martin holding the map of the locations she visited on seed-collecting forays. Photos: Jonathan Pavlica

When Amanda C. Martin was interviewing undergraduate assistants a few years back at the start of her graduate research program in the plant biological sciences, one question could make or break an applicant. Would they be willing to drive to remote corners of the state to collect seeds from native plants? Eventually, she found a tireless research roadie with whom to make the treks and embarked on an ambitious effort to uncover natural compounds in native plants.

“I have a map with 27 dots on it, and each represents a different area of the state that we visited. We went on 40 excursions in an old blue truck with no working radio,” says Martin. “I even stopped to collect seeds on the way back from a wedding in Wisconsin.”

But collecting the seeds was only the first step. Martin designed a large research plot, germinated and propagated seeds, and hand-cultivated the plants. “I had to convince my research assistants that it’s fun to weed,” Martin says.

Once the plants are mature, Martin analyzes their phytochemical makeup — responsible for variations in taste, color, smell and other attributes — and investigated the different properties within distinct plant populations. She uses analytical techniques such as nuclear magnetic resonance and mass-spectrometry-based metabolics, which allows her to look at all the compounds contained in a crude extract at the same time yielding much faster results than more traditional approaches.

Martin studied biochemistry as an undergraduate and had to pick up the fundamentals of plant biology on the fly when she unexpectedly found her research interests converging with the discipline as a new graduate student. “I did not know at the time how hard it would be,” she says, “but it’s what makes my research interesting and compelling.” That’s because of the sheer number of specimens and variety of locations making it possible to assess which were more biologically active (and, potentially, more viable as a commercial crop) than others.

What motivates Martin to go the extra miles? She’s driven by the ways that her research on natural compounds in native plants could benefit people and the environment. “I love the ecological implications of this project,” she says. “I love the potential this has to be a boon for the economy. I love the products that could come out of this because they are products I would want to use.”

With their complex root systems and proven ability to adapt to their environment, perennial native plants provide valuable ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, reduction in water use and erosion control. And because many of these plants have been in use continuously for hundreds or even thousands of years as “traditional medicinals,” Martin points out that they already have an established track record of being safe for human use making the compounds derived from them ideal natural antimicrobials and preservatives for lotion, shampoo and other products.

As part of her research, Martin is working with her advisors Adrian Hegeman (Department of Plant Biology) and Don Wyse (College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resources) to find natural compounds for possible use in beauty products. “I already have preliminary data showing one population performing better in biomass and seed production,” she says. One day in the not-too-distant future, one of her compounds may just turn up on the ingredient list.

– Stephanie Xenos