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Leafy Social Network? USU Undergrad Researcher Explores How Plants 'Think'

Monday, Sep. 16, 2019

Undergrad researcher in botany lab

USU Undergraduate Research Fellow and Honors student Matthew Hogan exposes a banana plant to light to measure and record gas exchange along the surface of its leaves. Hogan received an URCO grant to support his research.

USU researchers in botany lab

Physics major Matthew Hogan, seated, views collected data with faculty mentors David Peak, left, and Keith Mott, center. The undergrad is a Howard L. Blood Scholar in the Department of Physics and also a recipient of a USU Dean's Scholarship.

As part of a research project, Utah State University physics major Matthew Hogan sits in a lab and watches plants grow. And it’s a far-from-boring exercise, he says.

“It’s a new learning experience every day,” says the Undergraduate Research Fellow of his efforts which, upon further investigation, involve much more than passively observing flora. “This project continually challenges my brain.”

For example, Hogan, an Honors student, who is minoring in computer science and mathematics, spent the summer writing more than 3,500 lines of code. That’s because he’s studying the function of pores or “stomata” in the leaves of plants, as they continually open to take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen and water vapor, and close to prevent too much water loss.

“I’m writing computer programs to create theoretical models of plant stomata, so we can develop hypotheses to observe how stomata react in varying conditions,” says Hogan, who is conducting research with faculty mentors Keith Mott, professor in USU’s Department of Biology and David Peak, professor in USU’s Department of Physics.

At the same time, Hogan is observing and recording reactions of stomata in the leaves of actual plants – in this case, banana plants – as he exposes them to different wavelengths of light. 

“Using red light or red/blue light, we can simulate photosynthesis,” says Hogan, who graduated from Utah’s Logan High School in 2016. “We measure and record gas exchange along the surface of the leaves during three to six-hour periods.”

The collected data results in computer-generated, time-lapse simulations of the leaves’ surfaces, revealing oscillating planes of opening and closing stomata.

“Plants must solve a central problem of adjusting stomatal apertures at just the right time, for just the right amount of time, to allow gas exchange, yet prevent the plant from losing too much water,” Hogan says. “With our data, we get to watch this dynamic computational process, which shows ebbing and flowing ‘patches’ of activity.”

An amazing aspect of this cooperative networking is plants have no central processing unit. 

“Yet, the stomata are reacting and working together to solve an optimization problem,” he says. “They’re functioning in what amounts to a very sophisticated social network.”

Hogan is a Blood Scholar, a recipient of the Department of Physics’ endowed scholarship program, established by the late USU Physics alum Howard L. Blood, BS’47, which supports outstanding students. In addition, Hogan received a USU Undergraduate Research and Creative Opportunities (URCO) grant, to further his research efforts.

“When I first started at Utah State, I worked in fast food – delivering pizza – to support my studies,” says the Cache Valley native, who entered USU on a Dean’s Scholarship. “But having support from USU allows me to work in a much more stimulating lab environment on campus, while furthering my research.”

Beyond the lab, the aspiring university professor participates in the USU Chess Club and Society of Physics Students Chapter. He also enjoys year-round outdoor recreational opportunities just outside the USU campus.

“Utah State is just the right balance between ‘the big city’ and ‘the middle of nowhere,’” Hogan says.


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