SBC caught up with Research Officer, Hii Mei Mei recently to share her experience at Texas Tech University, USA under the Borlaug International Agricultural Science and Technology Fellowship Program. Here is our short interview with her, as she shares the recent publication of a research paper in Nature Research Journal (September 2016), which was the outcome of the work she participated in during the program.

About the Borlaug International Agricultural Science and Technology Fellowship Program:

The Norman E. Borlaug International Agricultural Science and Technology Fellowship Program was established by United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in March 2004 to honor the Nobel Laureate Norman E. Borlaug.  It is administered and fully funded by USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Services (FAS). The main objectives of the fellowship program are:

  • To help developing countries strengthen sustainable agricultural practices by providing scientific training and collaborative research opportunities
  • To increase scientific knowledge and promotes long-term collaboration with researchers at US land grant universities, government agencies and international research centre.

Question:  Tell us about being chosen for the Borlaug Fellowship Progamme.

MeiMei: In Year 2014, with encouragement from SBC’s Management, I applied for a research training program under the Fellowship.  I was pleasantly surprised when I was offered the Fellowship, which I applied for, through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), for a 12-weeks program at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, USA from 12 January to 6 April 2014.

Question: What sort of research work did you do during the 12-weeks at Texas Tech University?

MeiMei: Throughout the program, I was supervised by Dr. Venugopal Mendu. Dr. Mendu is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Plant & Soil Science, Texas Tech University. He specializes in plant physiology and biochemistry. One of his goals is to identify and characterize the genes involved in plant cell wall biosynthesis using model plant Arabidopsis, which is a small flowering plant that is widely used as a model organism in plant research. In addition, Dr. Mendu’s lab works on cell wall biology of crop plants such as cotton, corn and sorghum.

My task was to identify plant cell wall degrading enzymes in biofuel production, and for this, I worked on whole genome sequencing analysis of ten unique soil bacteria from Sarawak. Once of the family of cell wall degrading enzymes is laccases. I was involved in estimation of cell wall degrading enzymes using Zymography. The research carried out by Dr Mendu’s team is to identify and characterize the laccase genes, which will be used to improve cotton fiber development.

The reason for carrying out this project was to connect the research to Sarawak. Bacterial laccases are also involved in cell wall degradation which play an important role in the bioethanol production from plant biomass. Research on biomass has an application to the industries in SCORE (Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy).

Question: Tell us a little bit about the work environment that you experienced there.

MeiMei: The working environment is different. Instead of working as a researcher as I do at SBC, at Texas Tech I was a student. Every Monday, our group will have a group meeting to discuss the lab research progress. In addition, each person will present one journal paper related to their research for discussion.

At the start of my training, I gave a brief introduction on what we do at SBC. It was interesting to note that some of the students there had not heard about Sarawak and it was the first time that they were introduced to SBC, as well as the role of that our Traditional Knowledge Documentation Program plays in our R&D activities.

Question: How has this training benefited you and your research work at SBC?

MeiMei: The knowledge and skills gained during program helped me build confidence, particularly in DNA sequencing, protein and enzyme work. It also helped immensely in improving my preparation, planning and organizing of research experiments. The different working environment was an eye opener and opportunity to learn from the team at Texas Tech, as well as build relations so that we can share techniques, information and knowledge in research.

Question: Going back to the work on cotton fiber. How is this important to science and can it be applied to other plants or crops?

MeiMei: During my training, I was given the opportunity to join the team’s research on cotton fiber quality improvement. In the experiment, cell wall biosynthetic genes using Arabidopsis were isolated and characterized to enhance cotton fiber quality/yield. The finding from the research is to provide the textile industry with cotton fibers that can be processed more efficiently and make better quality textile products.

Basically, the research aims to reduce the production of lignin, which causes reduction of biomass in plants. A reduction in lignin will improve biomass yield/quality, and in the case of cotton, produce long, uniformed, fine, and strong fiber with low contamination levels. This principle of this research can be applied to alter the composition of lignin in other plants that produce biomass such as palm trees, without interfering the plant growth.

Question: What was the outcome of the research that was undertaken?

MeiMei: As an outcome of this research, a paper entitled “Genome-wide identification of multifunctional laccase gene family in cotton (Gossypium spp.); expression and biochemical analysis during fiber development” was published on 29 September 2016 in Nature Research Journal.

The principal authors of the paper are Dr Venugopal Mendu and his team, Vimal Kumar Balasubramanian, Krishan Mohan Rai, and Sandi Win Thu. I am also grateful to Dr Mendu and his team for acknowledging my contribution to the research and paper, in the short time that I was there with them.

Mei Mei


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