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Faculty Profile : The Corn Lady

Plant Biologist Sarah Hake Heads Plant Gene Expression Center

by Julia Sommer, Public Affairs
posted November 11, 1998

Sarah Hake is fascinated by corn -- corn leaves, corn kernels, corn tassles, corn ears, corn fertilization, corn mutations, corn genes.

At the Agricultural Research Service in Albany, she has a corn field, a greenhouse sheltering genetically altered corn plants, a storehouse for dried ears of corn, and a lab full of students and postdocs researching corn genetics.

Her email address -- -- incorporates the scientific name for corn.

In August Hake was appointed director of the Plant Gene Expression Center -- a collaboration of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Berkeley's Department of Plant and Microbial Biology. She is responsible for about 90 people investigating how plants work on the most basic level -- the genetic level.

Hake has been researching how corn develops since 1975, when she was a graduate student at Washington University. She came to Berkeley for a postdoc with Mike Freeling, professor of plant and microbial biology, and joined the Plant Gene Expression Center 12 years ago.

Hake looks for naturally occuring mutations in corn plants, isolates the genes responsible for them, and then "transgenically" inserts them into other plants. The aim is to figure out which genes do what and how. "A single gene can have an incredible effect," she says. "It's so fascinating!"

In the long run, says Hake, the work of the Center will improve the world's ability to produce food. The group working on plant hormones, for example, recently patented a cloned key regulator in fruit ripening -- ACCsynthase -- that could improve fruit quality and slow spoilage.

Another group, headed by Peter Quail, professor of plant and microbial biology, is investigating how plants perceive light. They may find a way to grow more food with less light.

"In the short run, we're curious," says Hake, who is especially interested in the corn meristem -- the group of cells that produce the rest of the plant. "How does the meristem organize itself to produce certain organs at certain times?" she asks.

Corn genetics has been studied for the past century because the plant is easy to grow, study and cross-fertilize, says Hake. The ear, or "female" part, produces about 300 seeds, or kernels, and is separated from the tassle, or "male" part, at the top. Corn is also the number one crop in the U.S.

Hake says the joint USDA-campus backing of the Plant Gene Expression Center is "fantastic. We get core support from the USDA for long-term projects, and supplement those funds with grants. We also have the privilege of training and teaching students."

An adjunct professor, Hake team teaches an undergraduate course on plant genetics each fall. Undergraduates working in the Albany lab learn how to clone genes and help in the greenhouse.

Hake's campus research seems light-years away from her Bolinas home, where her organic farmer husband raises and sells 127 varieties of vegetables -- but not corn, which needs more sun than Bolinas offers.

Yet Hake keeps a sharp eye out for mutations at the farm, too -- a chard plant that is half red and half green, a snapdragon that is half red and half yellow. Knowing her predi-lection, friends and farmers bring her more mutations to examine.

Ironically, organic farms are not allowed to grow transgenic plants. "This is an emotional issue for organic farmers," says Hake. "I would encourage organic farmers to become more informed about transgenic technology, as some traits could be very useful for non-chemical farming, such as transgenically altered, disease-resistant plants that would reduce the use of pesticides. I tell my students that transgenic plants should be considered on a case-by-case basis."


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