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Feb. 13, 2019

Berkley Walker: Beneath the ski mask

Feb. 13, 2019

Berkley Walker is an assistant professor in the Department of Plant Biology and the Plant Research Laboratory in the College of Natural Science.

Recently an individual was recorded skiing across the MSU campus on the eve of a polar vortex. It’s taken from a bus window and the skier appears pretty determined as he glides across the sidewalk. The recording was shared via Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook and generated a string of comments about the weather and who the mystery skier could be. Many of the commenters assumed it was one of the many hardy students of MSU fighting the elements to make it to class.

While it very well could have been one of the many dedicated students of MSU, in this case, it was me, an assistant professor trying to beat the crossing signal across the intersection of Bogue and Shaw so I could get some work done before teaching my Plant Physiology lecture on central metabolism.

After a few days and some national media coverage, I had an opportunity to reach out and share my side of the story. During the interview, I was surprised when the reporter referred to me as “amazing.”

While I could have painted a picture of myself as a dedicated faculty member going to great lengths to serve my students and conduct research, the reality was much less noble: I skied in because it sounded fun and was a practical solution to getting to work.

As a father with three young children, I had been unable to get out on cross country skis since moving to Michigan last August, and the weather offered the perfect excuse. In my mind, we all skied/walked/biked/drove right past the real amazing ones in the world: all of the plants!

Think about it. While we pile on layer after layer in preparation for a trip outside for just a few minutes, trees stand exposed 24 hours a day to brutal winds, and seeds lie patiently in wait on the cold, hard ground. Come spring, we expect buds to open and green to return. We have seen this cycle year after year — so much that we give little thought as to how plants are able to manage such a miracle.

Ironically, my research deals more with how plants deal with hot temperatures. I study a process known as photorespiration, which happens when the first step of photosynthesis gets confused and grabs an oxygen molecule instead of a carbon dioxide molecule.

Photorespiration may not be in your everyday vocabulary, but it costs Midwest agriculture about 148 trillion dietary calories a year. Additionally, a 5 percent reduction in the impact of photorespiration would be worth approximately $500 million annually.

Photorespiration increases with temperature and is impacted by changing carbon dioxide concentrations. For these reasons, it is important to understand how photorespiration works to know how much food we can expect to grow under future conditions.

In my research program, we work to understand photorespiration, not only to model it under current climates, but to find new ways to “hack” it in order to increase plant growth and yield under current and future conditions. In work led by MSU alumnus Donald Ort at the University of Illinois, this approach has recently been successful in increasing plant biomass by 40 percent under field conditions, and I believe we have yet to realize the full potential of understanding the mechanisms of photorespiration.

So, in a way, the same drive that inspired my ski trip fuels my research. I seek to find practical solutions to everyday problems. Sometimes the solutions are fun, but sometimes they require approaches that are more tedious. In any case, they provide me with purpose and an opportunity to embark on an everyday adventure whether it be on skis or in a lab coat.