Latifa Obaidi

by Ashley Washburn

A white flower in an otherwise deeply pigmented population offers another clue for UNL student Latifa Obaidi, a veteran of UNL’s Undergraduate Creative Activity and Research Experiences program, which enables students to assist with faculty research and launch independent projects that prepare them for work or graduate school.

The senior biochemistry major from Lincoln studies how mutations in two genes, chalcone flavonone isomerase (CHI) and dihydroflavonol 4-reductase (DFR), affect certain pigments in Iochroma, a genus of flowering plants, trees and shrubs. A white flower instead of blue, purple or red indicates a mutation in the genetic pathway.

She is comparing CHI, located higher in the pathway, and DFR to determine whether their locations within a pathway influence the rate of DNA changes. These genetic changes, and the speed at which they occur, can explain how traits like flower color evolve.

Obaidi was among several UNL researchers featured in the annual UNL Research Report, published this month. The 40-page report highlights key research at the university.

Understanding the relationship between gene mutation and evolution has applications beyond plant science, including human health. For example, cancer often begins with a “mistake” in a cell’s DNA. Knowing where the mutation occurred and how that may affect the entire gene sequence could provide important clues about how cancer cells behave.

“Many of the same molecular activities occur in both plants and humans. They just have slightly different rules,” Obaidi said.

She has gained real-world genetics research experience working for two years alongside Stacey Smith, her project adviser and assistant professor of biological sciences, and now conducts her own independent research.

Obaidi said she has developed valuable expertise from designing experiments and learning to interpret data, and the confidence to pursue her goal of becoming a physician and scientist after graduation in 2014. She’s interested in genetics and oncology.

She also is a UCARE ambassador, encouraging other students to participate. Now in its 13th year, UCARE has become a national model for undergraduate research programs.

Obaidi is a “natural and patient mentor” to other students, Smith said. “I predict the growing number of outstanding students that participate in research at UNL will be one of the biggest contributors to our visibility as a research institution in the coming years.”