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March 8, 2012

Son of MSU scientists scores discovery of his own

EAST LANSING, Mich. - Philip Cody He – the 17-year-old son of Michigan State University professors and AgBioResearch scientists Sheng Yang He and Ke Dong – is proof that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

A senior at Okemos High School, He already has a major scientific breakthrough of his own: He was the first to determine that Arabidopsis thaliana capping protein (AtCP) plays a vital role in plant immunity.

And the discovery has landed him in an elite group of high school seniors from across the nation, considered some of the most promising future scientists. He is one of 40 finalists in the 2012 Intel Science Talent Search, a precollege science competition that started with more than 1,800 entries.

"It's exciting, especially since plants usually don't get a lot of love when it comes to competitions like these," He said of the announcement. "I'm not holding my breath, but a finish in the top 10 would be nice."

He will travel to Washington, D.C., March 8-13 to undergo a rigorous judging process, interact with leading scientists, display his research at the National Geographic Society and meet with national leaders. As a finalist, he also has the opportunity to meet President Barack Obama. Winners will be announced March 13 during a black-tie ceremony at the National Building Museum.  The grand prize winner will receive a $100,000. Prizes for second through 10th places range from $75,000 to $20,000.

The plant immunology experiment was conducted in the lab of MSU plant pathologist and AgBioResearch scientist Brad Day, under the supervision of graduate student Katie Porter.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the project explored the role of the actin cytoskeleton in plant innate immune signaling. Though the role of the protein in defense against pathogens in animals has been studied, Day said this project was one of the first to look at its role in plants.

"The primary goal was to explore the broad function of actin-based signaling in plants during pathogen infection," Day said. "[He] identified one key component of the cytoskeleton that is required for defense signaling in plants. We hypothesize that this node represents a potential target that plant pathogens 'attack' in order to infect and colonize plants."

The discovery will be included in an upcoming publication, a collaboration between scientists at MSU, Oregon State and Purdue universities, Day said. The finding could help in the development of ways to lower the cost of protecting crops from disease and have long-term implications in food security and safety.

He's research is one of two plant projects selected as finalists in the contest.

"What better place than MSU to have one of just two remaining plant projects, because we're known as the epicenter of plant biology," Day said. 

Projects in the Intel Science Talent Search, a program of Society for Science and the Public, are selected on the basis of originality and creative thinking, as well as students' achievements and leadership both inside and outside the classroom.