20 Aug 2014
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Who's Who in Albany: Damon Lisch

Every weekday we’ll feature a brief chat with someone who lives or works in Albany.

Who's Who in Albany: Damon Lisch

Name: Damon Lisch

Age: 46

Occupation: Research scientist at U.C., Berkeley, in plant and microbial biology

How many experiments are going on here at the Gill Tract? This is the work of several labs. I have about a quarter-acre. About half the field is for research by the USDA Plant Gene Expression Center, and the other half is U.C. Berkeley research. Some of the world's premier research in plant biology is going on in this field.

I want to clear up a couple of misperceptions. I was really disturbed not long ago when I heard someone outside the Albany Community Center with a "Save the Gill Tract" poster say that Monsanto was funding our research. It's not. There are no trans-genes here. It's offensive to those of us who do basic research to even say that.

There are no pesticides used here. We do do a little Round-Up for the nasty weeds, but we communicate with [Ocean View] School; we use it only when school is not in session. The tract is almost exclusively hand-weeded. Undergraduates don't want to do it anymore. We have undergraduate volunteers, but if they have a choice between extracting DNA in a nice, clean lab and pulling weeds, well….

How do you go about setting up your research? We hand-plant our corn. Every corn kernel is picked for a particular reason. I'll plant about 4,000 in a season.

What kind of research are you and your colleagues doing? We do basic research in plant development. Most of us look at mutants that interrupt development. (Pointing out a furry mutant corn tassel in another researcher's area) This mutant is composed of all divisions [branching]; how does the plant understand how to stop making those divisions? Here they probably got a broken version of a gene that's important for that process.

My research has to do with transposable elements. Transposons are a little like viruses, but they never leave [an organism]. Sixty to 75 percent of genomes are transposons – sometimes referred to as "junk DNA" – but it's not really junk; it's ecosystem.

We cross-pollinate the corn. I go through every morning and walk the line [of corn]. I cover up the ear, the female part, so that it isn't pollinated on its own; we want to pollinate one plant to another. We cover up the ear. After it's sat for a while, we cover up the tassel with a bag and shake it to get pollen into the bag. Then we put that bag over the ear for pollination. We wait about 45 days; then we collect our ear.

It's something that consumes you for about a month, 10 hours a day. When the corn is ready, it's ready; you have only three or four days to cross-pollinate. I plant the corn in waves [to manage it all]. We get about 3,000 to 4,000 crosses; we actually extract the DNA, so it's a lot of bookkeeping.

We're trying to understand the immune system that keeps [transposons] from jumping. They like to copy themselves; transposons like to hop around, and they can cause mutations. This immune system, called RNAi, was only discovered a few years ago. In all organisms the immune system is looking for the transposons and trying to keep them from doing that.

What are some of the challenges to your research? Deer, wild turkeys – groundhogs are the latest vermin. The crows get smarter every year. They'll go in and pull out the 3-inch shoots because they know they'll get a sweet seed. 

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