27. February 2024 | Magazine:

Why is the flower blue? Insight into an internship at TU Braunschweig

Why are some plants’ flowers red and others blue? Questions like these are at the heart of research in the Plant Biotechnology and Bioinformatics working group at Technische Universität Braunschweig. Maya Höstje spent two weeks here on an internship and tells us about her experiences in the magazine.

Student Maya Höstje during lab work. Photo credit: Katharina Wolf/TU Braunschweig

The group is mainly concerned with the genetics of plants in order to analyse their metabolic pathways. In this way it is possible to find out, for example, how certain pigments are produced that are responsible for the colour of flowers. Methods that I learned during my internship can be used for this.

To see these processes in action, I spent the first few days accompanying a doctoral student researching the dark pigmentation of plants. As part of the project, we carried out a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR for short. This method is widely used in science and many people are probably familiar with it in connection with corona PCR tests. The protein polymerase can be used to amplify DNA fragments, which can then be analysed in more detail. Another method, gel electrophoresis, can be used to analyse the size of the fragment. As the size can now be calculated, this method is used to analyse the success of previous reactions.

Flower of the native foxglove (Digitalis purpurea). The results of the genome studies of the digitalis plant have been published in a paper (https://doi.org/10.1101/2024.02.14.580303), photo credit: Jakob Horz/TU Braunschweig

Over the next few days, I was able to help a Master student with his research into the differences in pigmentation in the foxglove plant. We performed gene extraction to genotype the plants, i.e. to distinguish their DNA from each other. The extracted DNA was then amplified by PCR. The results of the subsequent gel electrophoresis showed the differences in the plant DNA due to the different sizes of the fragments.

By the end, I was even allowed to carry out my first independent PCR and gel electrophoresis. I was able to test the knowledge I had acquired over the previous two weeks. At the beginning of the internship I probably wouldn’t have thought I could do this, but by working consistently to understand and comprehend as much as possible, I was able to independently apply the methods I had learnt at the end.

In the first few days, it was a lot of knowledge all at once. We talked about terms I had never heard before and I tried to understand some very complex processes on that basis. But the more time I spent in the lab, the better I understood the experimental processes and how the equipment worked. However, this would not have been possible without the large practical component, as I was allowed to try out everything myself under supervision in the procedures described above. All the staff always tried to involve me and were very patient in explaining the relationships, for which I am very grateful.

All in all, the internship was a very intensive and informative time, during which I was not only able to learn about the work there, but also gain new impressions during my two-week stay in Braunschweig alone.

The efforts of the school’s Science Forum also helped me to gain an incredible amount of new experience. For example, I was supported in making contact with the institute and during the internship, which is how the internship came about in the first place.

Maya Höstje