Winter Awakens Spring Flowering

Rick Amasino
Photo by Frederic Bouche

It’s springtime in Wisconsin again. Home gardeners and farmers are busy tending to their beds and fields, relishing the fresh sprouts of flowers, vegetables, and crops. It begs the question: What happens in the inner workings of plants as they prepare for spring? What’s the science that governs the growing season for different flora?

Rick Amasino, a plant biochemist and professor in the Department of Biochemistry, may have the answers — or at least some of them. He studies plant development and, specifically, how and when plants produce flowers. In 2016, his expertise earned him a place on a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee tasked with investigating the impacts of genetically engineered crops.

Many plants have effectively evolved a way to avoid flowering prior to winter. Instead, they use the cold season to help activate flowering when the weather warms. Amasino’s research sheds light on what conditions a plant must experience in order to flower. In particular, he focuses on unraveling the genetic basis of the effects these conditions have on plants as they stimulate or repress flowering. His findings may allow other scientists and plant breeders to develop crops that are more efficient and have higher yields of food or energy.

How do plants respond to spring?

There are a wide range of responses. For example, some plants need to be exposed to winter cold to flower in the spring, whereas others form spring flowers as a result of being exposed to the decreasing hours of sunlight during the fall season. Apple and cherry trees are in this latter category — their flowers are actually formed in the previous fall in buds that become dormant. Then, when it gets warm the following spring, everything that was crammed into those buds in the fall just unfolds. Other plants like lilies, for example, require exposure to cold in order to flower. When they are growing in the fall, flowering is blocked. But over winter, the block is removed and they flower in the spring. The underlying processes for this involve a lot of biochemistry, and that’s what we’ve studied in my lab. Specifically, we study how flowering is blocked in the fall and how exposure to cold results in the removal of this block. The block removal process is known as vernalization; this word is derived from vernal, which means “relating to spring.”

Are there any more examples of plants that need winter to flower?

Some common examples include many of the vegetables we plant in the spring, such as cabbage, carrots, and beets. We don’t usually see these particular vegetables flowering because they will not flower until they experience winter, and we harvest them before they have a chance to flower. Many grasses go through this process as well.

Why should we be interested in this process?

This requirement to go through winter in order to flower is important agriculturally; food plants keep growing without flowering all summer long and, therefore, the part which we consume can get very large. However, if you left a carrot in the ground after the summer, it would flower the next spring, and the underground part of the carrot we eat would become shriveled as it provides the nutrients for flowers to form.

If it gets warmer earlier, is that a problem?

An early warming trend in itself isn’t problematic if it continues into spring, but our climate is likely to be more variable than that. So, if we have unusually high temperatures late in the winter and cherry blossoms in Door County open, but then we get a blast of cold afterward, the flowers will be destroyed and fruit cannot form.

What’s going on on the inside of the plant that determines whether or not it flowers?

In the plants we study that require winter, there is a gene encoding a repressor protein that is expressed in the fall that prevents the plant from flowering. Then, over the winter, control of the repressor gene is altered in a way that the repressor is no longer expressed. Consequently, plants can flower when it gets warm, and they resume growth in the spring in the absence of the repressor protein. We’ve recently published research specifically on the small Mediterranean grass called Brachypodium. Previous work has shown that a gene called VRN1 is responsible for activating flowering in these grasses after the winter. But what’s the repressor gene keeping VRN1 in check in the fall? That was previously unclear. We did genetic screens and found several of the genes that repress the VRN1 gene prior to winter. We just published a scientific paper on one of these, calling it RVR1, for its role in repressing VRN1.

Why are gene discoveries like this important for this area of research?

Scientists that breed cereal grains may find this newly identified gene interesting. However, we think it could also impact biofuels research. I am part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) here on campus. Although switchgrass, which can be used to make biofuels, doesn’t go through the vernalization process, there’s a good chance that taking the RVR1 gene from Brachypodium and putting it in switchgrass will delay switchgrass flowering. Delaying switchgrass flowering to various extents may improve yield.

Why is understanding this process important?

In basic research like ours, we often don’t know where exactly it’s going, but it often ends up having practical relevance. Our goal is to understand the biochemical pathways that plants have evolved to flower at certain times of the year. But in crops, in which the timing of flowering is important, this research can be applicable. For example, we share our unpublished work with wheat breeders who can translate some of the knowledge into increased efficiency in a breeding program. Also, our work has revealed basic principles of how genes are regulated, which has implications for many areas. Another example of applicability, although not directly from our research, was useful for sugar beet farmers, who plant in the spring. A spring cold spell will trigger some of the sugar beets to flower, and flowering plants do not produce the part of the beet the farmers harvest. Scientists in Europe modified genes involved in the flowering response to cold and came up with a sugar beet variety that doesn’t flower if it is exposed to cold. Now farmers can plant their beets in the fall rather than the spring to allow them to have a much longer growing season and to grow bigger — and they don’t have to worry about the beets flowering. This has significantly increased the yield per acre of sugar beets.

What’s your next step in this research?

We are going to continue to work with other GLBRC researchers to study Brachypodium and how different varieties of the plant live and persist in winters that have varying temperatures and lengths. How did one variety evolve a system tweaked to require 16 weeks of cold? Why does another one require just two weeks of cold? In other words, what’s the genetic and biochemical difference between the requirement for a short winter versus a long winter? Grasses are really important crops, and this model for studying flowering can tell us a lot about how they work

Connecting Our Ways of Knowing

In any other classroom, mention of planting “Three Sisters” might cause confusion. But in Becky Nutt’s science class at Oneida Nation High School, located on a tribal reservation in northern Wisconsin, most students know that the Three Sisters are corn, beans and squash, crops that in Native American tradition are planted together in a single mound.

Guided by Nutt, their questions focus on photosynthesis, the process by which plants like the Three Sisters convert sunlight into the energy they need to grow and produce oxygen. The lesson culminates with each student pretending to be an atom of a particular element in that process— oxygen, carbon or hydrogen—and “form bonds” by holding hands or throwing an arm around a classmate’s shoulders. It’s a fun lesson that resonates, judging by both the enthusiastic participation and the thoughtful entries each student writes afterward in a logbook.

The students know the lesson as part of a “pilot curriculum from UW–Madison,” as Nutt tells them—perhaps the easiest way to explain POSOH (poh-SOH), which is both the Menominee word for “hello” and an acronym for “Place-based Opportunities for Sustainable Outcomes and High Hopes.” The program is being developed in partner- ship with both Oneida and Menominee communities.

But what POSOH really represents is a new way of teaching science. Funded by a $4.7 million grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2011, the program has the mission of helping prepare Native American students for bioenergy and sustainability-related studies and careers. POSOH aims to achieve that by offering science education that is both place-based and culturally relevant, attributes that have been shown to improve learning.

“We’re hoping to help make science relevant to young people,” says CALS biochemistry professor and POSOH project director Rick Amasino. “Bioenergy and sustainability offer an entrée into broader science education.”

For Native American students, sustainability is an obvious fit for science discussion, Amasino notes. The Native American concept of thinking in “seven generations”—how the natural resource management decisions we make today could affect people far into the future—has sustainability at its foundation, and most Native American traditions reflect that value. The Three Sisters, for example, offer a way to discuss not only photosynthesis but also indigenous contributions to our knowledge of agronomy, including how mixed crops support long-term soil health and animal habitat.

An innovative program like POSOH is needed because current teaching methods are not proving effective with Native American students. Native American students score lower in reading and math than their white counter- parts in elementary and high school, and only a low percentage have ACT scores that indicate college readiness, according to “The State of Education for Native Students,” a 2013 report by The Education Trust. Other studies show higher dropout rates and unemployment among Native Americans—and, specifically, that Native Americans are vastly underrepresented in STEM fields as students, teachers and professionals.

Verna Fowler, president of the College of Menominee Nation, sees POSOH as offering a crucial connection. Her tribal community college, along with CESA 8, the state public education authority that includes the Menominee Indian School District, has been a key partner in developing and piloting POSOH. Other leading partners include Michigan State University and, within UW–Madison, the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center.

“POSOH takes you into science in the natural world and helps you relate your concepts and understanding so that you understand science is all around you,” says Fowler. “Sometimes that’s what we miss in our classrooms. A lot of students are afraid of science classes. They don’t realize what a scientific world they’re living in.”

In developing POSOH materials, Amasino serves as the go-to guy for verifying the science. “The main thing I do is work with everyone to keep the science accurate,” he says.

Curriculum development and other POSOH activities are led by CALS researcher and POSOH co-director Hedi Baxter Lauffer, who has a rich background in K–12 science education. In a previous project she worked with California state universities in developing a multiyear math and science education program with diverse ethnic communities in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Alongside her work with POSOH, Lauffer directs the Wisconsin Fast Plants Program, which operates worldwide.

From the start Lauffer saw POSOH as a trailblazing effort. “We wanted to create a model for how a culturally responsive science curriculum can emerge from the community it is serving,” she says. “There’s nothing else like it.”

Lauffer knew her group was on to something during early curriculum design sessions with local educators, Native American community elders and students, particularly when she participated in a talking circle with seventh- and eighth-graders from the Menominee Indian School District. The kids were asked a simple question: “How do you take care of the forest—and how does the forest take care of you?”

“They had all kinds of stories about the plants and animals that live there,” says Lauffer. “They were saying things like, ‘I take my nephew into the forest and teach him to pick up his trash. He needs to know that it’s a beautiful place to play.’ It was clear that their connection to nature was strong—and that’s an opportunity for making science learning relevant and valuable.”

Initial steps for curriculum development included building key institutional partnerships and forming teams for curriculum design that brought in a wide range of Native American voices. Team members include scientists, assessment professionals, and teachers of science, education and Native American culture, some of whom are field-testing the materials.

The group is creating curricula for grades seven through nine. Seventh grade is complete, comprised of a fat lesson book and accompanying DVD with graphics and other enrichment materials. The other grades will be completed by the end of 2015, the project’s final year.

Other POSOH activities include after-school science clubs facilitated by undergraduate interns who also serve as informal mentors. This work is conducted in partnership with the Sustainable Development Institute at the College of Menominee Nation under the direction of Kate Flick BS’06, who studied community and environmental sociology at CALS and now serves as POSOH’s education coordinator.

Thumbing through the seventh- grade lesson book, it is immediately clear that cultural relevance is placed front and center. A typical textbook might pay tribute to cultural relevance with sidebars while the main text carries on with “science as usual.” With POSOH materials, cultural relevance is embedded in the meat of the text.

The seventh-grade curriculum, for example, is called “Netaenawemakanak” —Menominee for “All My Relatives”— and its six units focus on various scientific aspects of the Menominee Forest, such as organisms, microhabitats and ecological interactions. Students learn how such terms as evidence, protocol and conceptual models are used in science and, as a final lesson, how to formulate their own stewardship action plan based on what they’ve learned.

And it’s not just what the students learn, but how they learn it. POSOH incorporates forms of teaching and learning that are rooted in Native American culture, such as:

• Storytelling—Scientific concepts are imparted through stories involving the everyday lives of young Native American protagonists as well as figures from Native American legends and folktales.

• Perspective-taking—Students are invited to look at ecosystems from the viewpoint of animals, plants and other natural resources.

• “Careful noticing”—Students use all their senses when getting to know an environment, paying close attention to what is and is not present. In an exercise in the forest, for example, students are asked not only what they see, smell and hear, but also, “How do the woods make you feel?”

“These are age-old practices in indigenous pedagogy, but they aren’t widely seen as such. They’re so fundamental that I think they’re often overlooked,” says Linda Orie, an enrolled member of the Oneida tribe who taught middle-school science at the Menominee Tribal School. She now works on the POSOH curriculum team.

Orie considers POSOH a huge eye- opener for students. “It’s probably one of the first times they’ve seen anything in science class that has anything to do with Native Americans or Native American contributions to science and forestry,” she says. “Especially for a Menominee, that’s really important because most of them live on the reservation and a lot of their parents are employed through the lumber mill.”

“So they live and breathe the forest, but they don’t often get that instruction in the classroom,” Orie continues. “It was a huge gaping hole in the curriculum when I started teaching at the tribal school.”

By drawing upon indigenous ways of teaching and learning, POSOH helps bridge a gap between how students experience nature and how knowledge about it is imparted in the classroom. POSOH team member Robin Kimmerer, for example, says that as a professor of forest biology and as a Native American, she’s had to work hard to reconcile two distinct perspectives.

“In science we are asked to objectify the world, to view it in a strictly material, intellectual way,” says Kimmerer, who earned her doctorate in botany at UW–Madison and now teaches at the State University of New York. “In indigenous ways of knowing, we’re reminded that we can understand the world intellectually, physically, emotionally and spiritually—and that we can’t really claim to understand something unless we engage all four elements,” she says. POSOH team member Justin Gauthier, an enrolled Menominee who as a teenager attended a Native American boarding school, has come to think of science as another language for indigenous ways of knowing nature. In science, he says, “They’re using numbers, they’re using experimentation. It’s just different language.”

That recognition helped science feel more approachable to him.

“I used to perceive science as being outside of my experience. It was meant for scientists to do in a lab in a white coat. When I started thinking about how it tied into the ways that I was thinking, I felt that it had always been a part of my life and I had just never given it much credence,” he says.

Gauthier, a returning adult student, is earning his bachelor’s degree in English at UW–Madison and plans to teach in a tribal college after earn- ing an MFA in creative writing. He serves POSOH as a curriculum writer. Gauthier suggested naming the seventh- grade curriculum Netaenawemakanak (“All My Relatives”) because it is often uttered as a kind of one-word prayer when entering and leaving the sweat lodge. To him, among other things, the word expresses Native American regard for nature.

POSOH is not only helping fill a gap in science education. Project intern McKaylee Duquain, a junior majoring in forest science, notes that POSOH is filling a gap in cultural knowledge among young Native Americans as well. As an enrolled Menominee who attended tribal schools, Duquain confesses to not knowing what the Three Sisters were until late in high school—and she learned about it on her own.

“It wasn’t even offered when I was a student,” she says. “I’m not the most traditional person out there—I try to practice the traditional ways, but you can only do so much in this day and age. I feel like having that knowledge incorporated into your everyday learning life in school would definitely cement it in more.”

The program’s most enthusiastic ambassadors are the teach- ers and students who have been using it. So far the POSOH curriculum has been taught in 25 Wisconsin classrooms with the participation of some 135 students. Another 140 students have worked with POSOH materials in other settings, such as outreach programs conducted by undergraduate interns and the project’s high school club, called the Sustainability Leadership Cohort.

“I love that the POSOH curriculum brings science to a local level,” says Dan Albrent, a science teacher at De Pere’s Ashwaubenon High School, where he’s been piloting POSOH materials for the past two years. “Students a lot of times wonder why we are even learning all these complex things in science and just want a reason. POSOH does a nice job of bringing in real-life situations and issues that are literally close to home. And never in the curriculum are students sitting and listening to a lecture. They are actively talking and working with real data and real situations to solve problems.”

To him, POSOH represents the future of science education. “I truly believe this is how science should be taught,” Albrent says. “At the moment there is no better alternative for helping our kids realize the importance of learning science for our communities.”

Becky Nutt, of Oneida Nation High School, is just as convinced. She appreciates the program’s emphasis on reading and writing, which is not a given in science class—but important, she notes, in both communicating science and demonstrating understanding.

“Most important from my view is the integration of Native American culture into the materials,” says Nutt. “If, through these materials, we can foster better relationships between our Native students and their communities and other individuals and their communities, then we are on the right track.”

POSOH team member Linda Orie is taking a break from the classroom while earning her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction at UW– Madison—but she plans to return
to teaching in tribal schools and sees POSOH as a life-changing tool to bring with her.

“My career goal is to transform Indian education because it is stuck in this terrible rut,” Orie says. “Working in the tribal school I saw a lot of opportunity for growth. It was heartbreaking to see so much potential and not have colleagues that saw the same. And not seeing as many Native American teachers as there could be or should be in the schools. The kids need the best curriculum and the best teachers, and they’re not getting that right now. I want to be part of the change.”

That Orie, as an Oneida, backs the program so strongly speaks to perhaps the program’s greatest indicator of success—the acceptance it has earned in Native communities.

“We’ve been presenting POSOH to different schools, to different areas, to our boards of education and so on, and they’re very enthused about it— extremely enthused, I must say,” says College of Menominee Nation president Verna Fowler.

That enthusiasm is no accident, but the result of the program being developed within and in partnership with Native communities. Patty Loew, who is a professor of life sciences communication at CALS and an enrolled member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, just happened to be on hand during a POSOH presentation on the Menominee Reservation and was heartened by what she saw.

“I’ve been in a lot of situations where UW people try to engage with community members and it’s like pulling teeth for reasons that vary, but often come down to a basic mistrust of researchers,” Loew says. In those encounters, she says, “People are either being polite or they’ll have their arms folded and are just quietly listening or maybe hiding their resentment.”

“That was not the case on this day,” Loew says. “People were really engaged, they were discussing, they had ideas, it was emotional. It was clear to me that the community’s handprints were all over this project. They not only were hosting the research, they had shaped it, they were contributing to it, they were using the materials in their classrooms, they had a lot of pride in it. And I was really impressed.”

POSOH team member Justin Gauthier also knew about the mistrust firsthand—and saw it melt away.

“Historically in Indian Country there’s been this sort of stigma toward outside groups coming into the community, studying groups of people, taking data out of that community—and nary shall the two meet again,” Gauthier says. “But I really like and respect the way that the POSOH process is set up because, while the leadership team
is made up of people from within and without that community, the ideas—the voices at the table—are respected and integrated into the process. I feel like when we finish the project the curriculum and the relationships we’ve built are going to remain strong.”

“And that could be the big takeaway for me from this project,” Gauthier says. “Communities have the right to be wary of people coming in and studying them. But when you have a project like this, where the end result is meant to be a gift for that community, then you really see the beauty of cultures blossom and open up.”

That could be the big takeaway for Amasino and Lauffer as well. They and their team conceived of POSOH as an experiment in developing culturally integrated science curricula in a way that could be applied in various settings around the country.

“Our overarching mission is to build a transformational model for place- based collaborations dedicated to preparing all learners, especially those who are underrepresented in science and science education,” says Lauffer. “These community-based processes are what the project will share more broadly as it draws to a close. We plan to pass on lessons from POSOH to many other communities who can then build on our work and continue improving science teaching and learning.”

To learn more about POSOH, visit http://posohproject.org/. You can also watch the following video: http://go.wisc.edu/posohvideo

Many Ways of Knowing

“How do you take care of the forest—and how does the forest take care of you?”

Those questions might not spark a vibrant discussion among typical suburban middle-schoolers. But kids who grow up living, playing or hunting on the Menominee Indian Reservation in northeastern Wisconsin couldn’t say enough.

“They had all kinds of stories about the plants and animals that live there,” says CALS researcher Hedi Baxter Lauffer, who recently sat in on a talking circle with seventh- and eighth-graders from the Menominee Indian School District. “They were saying things like, ‘I take my nephew into the forest and teach him to pick up his trash. He needs to know that it’s a beautiful place to play.’”

Lauffer, along with biochemistry professor Rick Amasino and other researchers, was seeking student input for POSOH (poh-SOH)—the Menominee word for hello—a new partnership program between CALS (with the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center in a leading role) and the College of Menominee Nation.

The program, funded by a $4.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will over the next five years prepare students for bioenergy- and sustainability-related careers. Unlike most science education programs, POSOH will include exploration of how Native American traditions contribute to understanding ecosystems and sustainability.

People from minority cultures often struggle finding a path into science because of conflicts with their heritage, notes Lauffer. POSOH researcher Robin Kimmerer, for example, says that as a professor of forest biology and as a Native American, she’s had to work hard to reconcile two distinct ways of experiencing nature.

“In science we are asked to objectify the world, to view it in a strictly material, intellectual way,” says Kimmerer, who earned her doctorate in botany at UW–Madison and now teaches at the State University of New York. “In indigenous ways of knowing, we’re reminded that we can understand the world intellectually, physically, emotionally and spiritually—and that we can’t really claim to understand something unless we engage all four elements,” she says.

POSOH started field-testing teaching units this fall with 150 middle-schoolers, along with launching an after-school “sustainability club” and offering school-break research opportunities for kids on the UW–Madison campus. Over the next five years POSOH will provide numerous summer teacher training institutes to spread the program, which is expected to reach several thousand children in rural Wisconsin—and, researchers hope, provide a national model for bringing diverse ethnic groups into science.

We have a lot to gain by doing this, notes Lauffer. “We need innovative solutions to energy and sustainability challenges,” says Lauffer. “Broadening our knowledge and increasing access to scientific inquiry can help us meet those challenges.”