Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences Holds International Plant Biochemistry Course at Punta Cana

Course Provides Hands-On Field Study in Ecologically Rich Area

Sep 13, 2002

PUNTA CANA, Dominican Republic

Earlier this summer, from May 31 to June 14, eight Cornell graduate students hailing from all over the world gathered at the Cornell Biodiversity Laboratory in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, for an intensive two-week course entitled "The Distribution, Chemistry, and Biology of Natural Products: A Graduate Course in Plant Biochemistry." This intensive, hands-on field and laboratory course provided a unique and interdisciplinary curriculum that included aspects of field botany, evaluations of phytochemical diversity, and basic chemical-ecological assessments of biological activity.

Teaching the course at the Punta Cana biodiversity lab offered the opportunity to use extensive laboratory facilities with Dominican and other international scientists in one of Hispanola's most beautiful and ecologically rich areas.

The international delegation of doctoral students from the Cornell University Graduate School (in Ithaca, N.Y.) and Weill Medical College and Graduate School of Medical Sciences of Cornell University (in New York City) hailed from Chile, China, the Dominican Republic, Romania, and the United States. The course faculty comprised Dominican, Mexican, and U.S. scientists. The course was sponsored, in part, by the Lewis and Rachel Rudin Foundation.

A typical day for the students began at 8:00 a.m., when they entered the field for instruction in methods of plant identification with Dr. Kevin Nixon, Ms. Jackeline Salazar, and Mr. Rolando Sano. Between 12:30 and 5:30 p.m., instructional sessions in the identification of plant chemicals and in techniques used for assessing their biological activities were directed by Dr. Manuel Aregullin and Dr. Marcus McFerren. Various faculty members delivered evening lectures.

The facilities at the Biodiversity Lab include a chemistry laboratory with basic equipment and instrumentation; a biology laboratory with microbiology and tissue culture equipment; plant-processing equipment; and a herbarium. The site also houses a dormitory and administrative offices, in addition to a large conference room for nightly lectures.

The Biodiversity Laboratory, directed by Dr. Eloy Rodriguez, James A. Perkins Professor of Plant Biology at Cornell University, was developed with the support of Mr. Theodore Kheel; Grupo Punta Cana and its Director, Mr. Frank Rainieri; the Task Foundation; and the Punta Cana Ecological Foundation. The laboratory is associated with Weill Cornell Medical College's Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine, of which Dr. Mary Charlson is the Executive Director.

In addition to teaching specific biological and chemical techniques, the course heightened student awareness of ecological conservation priorities. Although most students of conservation are ecologists, this Cornell course offered students in the biomedical sciences a chance to play a role in conservation. The most basic ecological tool in conservation is biodiversity assessment. In the Punta Cana course, students learned the basic skills of plant taxonomy associated with biodiversity assessment while also learning how to evaluate the diversity of chemicals found in selected plants. Through this process, the students gained an understanding of how observations of plants in their natural habitat can lead to scientific investigations in the laboratory.

For example, it is well-known that after harvest, North American pumpkins resist rotting for extended periods of time, and that this property is mediated by a group of chemicals in the pumpkin rind called protease inhibitors. One student in the course decided to test for the presence of protease inhibitors in slowly rotting Dominican plants from the same family, the cucurbitaceae. "Although it is impossible for us to fully characterize the structure or activity of these chemicals, we have found that protease inhibitors are present in Dominican cucurbits," remarked Jackeline Salazar, a Dominican doctoral student in plant biology at Cornell. Faculty and students were particularly interested in this chemical-ecological interaction, because while protease inhibitors have evolved in pumpkins to ward off fungal attack, scientists have discovered that a select few chemicals of this type are useful drugs in the treatment of high blood pressure and H.I.V.

The investigations conducted at the Cornell Biodiversity Lab determine whether similar potentially useful chemicals are present within species found in the Punta Cana flora, and whether the presence or absence of such species constitute criteria upon which to set conservation priorities. It is important to note that no biological materials or extracts of Dominican species are removed from the Dominican Republic as part of this course or as part of any other Cornell Biodiversity Laboratory research activity.

"The proximity of the lab to the Punta Cana Ecological Reserve, Ojos indigenas, and Fruit Garden made this interdisciplinary field and lab course possible," commented Dr. Manuel Aregullin. The laboratory is a 20-minute walk from the Reserve and a 10-minute walk from the Fruit Garden. Over 50 plant families and 175 plant species can be found at the Ecological Reserve, and many of these species are native and unique to the Dominican Republic. "The accessibility of the Punta Cana flora allows us to do much more hands-on instruction, with the possibility of following up on interesting phenomena we may observe in the field," noted Dr. Kevin Nixon.

The Punta Cana course also provides young laboratory scientists with exposure to field biology and with a forum suitable for applications of their developing skills. The course is one of a very few that offers interdisciplinary faculty and facilities that together make comprehensive instruction and international collaboration possible. Dr. Marcus McFerren noted, "The students in this program are from a host of nations, many of which contain biodiversity hotspots like the Caribbean basin. It's our hope that they continue to utilize the tools acquired at Punta Cana in interdisciplinary studies of biological and chemical diversity should they return to their homeland."

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