By Jessica DeLeón
Patrick Horn is a research pioneer at age 26.
A biochemistry doctoral student at the University of North Texas, Horn became one of the first researchers to create a chemical map of plant cell components that will enable other scientists to analyze the lipid composition of plants in greater detail.
With these findings, scientists could improve human health and nutrition as well as agricultural productivity. The potential results — not to mention a natural inquisitiveness — drive Horn.
"I enjoy the idea that I’m the first one to know something," he says. "There’s something innate about humans wanting to explain why things are the way they are."
Horn looked at organelles, or cellular structures, the size of a micrometer. By contrast, the width of a human hair is 100 micrometers.
Researchers could only examine the chemical composition at the tissue level until Guido Verbeck, UNT assistant professor of chemistry and one of Horn’s mentors, helped create a nanomanipulator that allows scientists to study the composition of lipid droplets, organelles that store lipids typically as fats and oils.
Horn says understanding them at the nanoscale may result in ways to modify how fats are stored and burned.
The project took three years, with two and a half years to build the foundation and three months to find the data. Once researchers could look at one lipid droplet, they wanted to know if they could find any differences between individual lipid droplets.
Horn found the differences when he examined the lipid droplets from cotton seeds. With this discovery, scientists can study and capture the state of that cell and perhaps manipulate the production and metabolism of the droplets.
For example, soybean plants may be farmed more efficiently, improving the quality of vegetable oil from oil seeds, says Kent Chapman, Regents Professor of biochemistry and Horn’s major professor. Chapman directs the Center for Plant Lipid Research and is the coordinator of the Signaling Mechanisms in Plants research cluster.
"Think about all the things we get from plants — clothes, chemicals for nutrition, shelter, medicines. If you can improve the efficiency of how those molecules are made in the plant, then you can really impact these processes and meet the needs of humankind," Chapman says.
Lipids are present in all organisms, and Horn says the information the research provides on lipid droplet metabolism at the cellular and sub-cellular level may have far-reaching implications.
"It could lead to increased understanding of lipid-metabolism related disorders such as diabetes and obesity, and to possible tools for analyzing how particular treatments or environmental conditions affect lipid metabolism in humans," Horn says.
The research has drawn attention from biologists across the nation interested in understanding what types of lipids are present at the cellular or sub-cellular level in their own studies.
"It’s exciting to know that my research could potentially impact the greater good," Horn says.
Horn seemed like the right fit for the project. His father, who also did graduate work at UNT, taught science at a junior high school, and Horn thought about earning a Ph.D. even as a child. After earning a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, he came to UNT for graduate school, attracted by the strong programs in the biology department. He was awarded a Master’s and Doctoral Fellowship from the Toulouse Graduate School, which gave him more time to spend on his research.
Chapman says most students are encouraged to have one paper published by the time they have completed their Ph.D. studies, but Horn has exceeded that in his four years in the program.
"He is not finished yet and he already has five," Chapman says. "He’s a go-getter. I’ll take as many Patricks as I can get."
The paper Horn published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry was recommended by the Faculty of 1000, an organization that identifies the top 2 percent of articles published in biology and medical research journals.
"He is extremely well organized and very strong computationally, and I think he just really likes the work," Chapman says. "What distinguishes those who are productive and successful like Patrick is that they develop a passion for investigative research. It’s fun. It’s not a chore."
Horn’s next project is to use imaging mass spectrometry to examine each spot on each section of plant tissue, researching the tissue and cellular lipid composition. He is expected to graduate in 2013 and hopes to continue to conduct research as a professor.
"It’s all about the questions you ask," he says.
And, most likely, he’ll be among the first to know the answers.
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