One of the major unanswered questions in biology is the mechanism of organismal development and growth. How do molecular and cellular processes dictate and regulate development of an organism's form and function? This project aims to study the growth of plant shoots at the cellular level, obtaining new dynamic descriptions of patterns of cell division and gene expression by using real-time laser scanning confocal microscopy of plant meristems that have been marked with GFP-linked reporters. The project will in parallel generate specialized, efficient simulation code from mathematical models and link it to suitable bioinformatic datasets through pattern recognition, machine learning, and regulatory circuit inference algorithms. Superior mathematical flexibility follows from a computer algebra representation which creates mathematical "source code" from a growing library of mathematical models covering active transport, regulated mechanical interactions, signal transduction, and gene regulation. Extensive visualization, image processing, and optimization software will fit these predictive models to the collected image data. Scientific objectives of this effort include the development and use of such mathematical modeling software for plant development, as well as its use to explore alternative hypotheses in silico and to guide in vivo experiments. The long term goal is to test hypotheses of growth and development by creating a computable plant - an accurate representation of shoot growth in silico, that will respond to experimental changes in levels of individual functional components just as does a living plant when gene expression is altered. See www.computableplant.org for updates on the project.
The outreach plan is to develop, evaluate, and introduce a new set of techniques for high school and pre-service science teachers to improve students' understanding of botany and developmental biology. Caltech's Local Educators Network (LEN) will provide a corps of up to 75 participant educators from surrounding school districts (where over 80% of the students are underrepresented in the sciences and 38-58% participate in the National School Lunch program) who will learn about plant growth and development in a summer institute. Outreach activities will culminate in a summer institute in which 30 high school students will develop a public kiosk to display the "silicon plant" model for exhibit at the Huntington Botanical Gardens, which hosts 500,000 visitors per year.