Friday Faculty Focus: Kiran Bastola


January 20th, 2017

Dr. Kiran Bastola (Photo by Brandon McDermott)

Dr. Kiran Bastola (Photo by Brandon McDermott)

On this week’s episode of Friday Faculty Focus, KVNO’s Brandon McDermott speaks with Associate Professor of Bioinformatics at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Dr. Kiran Bastola. Dr. Bastola recently created the first food computer in Nebraska and hopes to one day have one in every school room in the country.

Brandon: Dr. Kiran Bastola – thanks for joining me today.

Dr. Bastola: Thank you very much for having me here.

Brandon: Now when it comes to bioinformatics – what’s your main focus or your interests?

Dr. Bastola: Well my primary interest is in mitochondria, but I have extensive background in different areas of biology. My PhD was in plant molecular biology where I genetically engineered carrot cells to address some developmental question relating to totipotency in plants. So in that context genetic modified carrot with human genes as well as mouse genes.

Brandon: Just briefly here, some people may raise a couple eyebrows when they hear that you genetically modified human genes and mouse genes with carrots. Why do this and what did you learn?

Dr. Bastola: During fertilization you have half the chromosome that is coming from your father half from your mother and then you have a zygote and that differentiates to become an individual. But in plants – it’s a little different. I can actually take a piece of leaf and then grow it to become the entire plant.

Every cell in a plant has that potential to grow into an entire plant. But, let’s look from the information point of view – meaning that there is enough information in there for it to recognize the different states – when to grow where to grow – through shoots or roots – but now that’s not the story with animals. But in the early days you could not take skin and then try to grow a whole human into it. It’s terminally differentiated in many animals, whereas in plants it’s not.

Brandon: I notice you work also with the Omaha Food Computer Initiative. Can you talk about what the Omaha Computer Initiative is?

Dr. Bastola: I was interested in finding a vehicle so I can communicate with high school students – we’re talking about living things – so a food computer was an ideal vehicle where I could deal with what computer would deal with plants and would deal with the technology which would control the growth of that plant and then collect data from there. So this this had all the elements that I needed as a bioinformatician.

I was interested in building this and I’ve been sitting on that for almost three years and finally you know last summer I got my hands to it. I had a help from the College with the support of intern during summer and so I took advantage of that and built this. It was during that time is when I discovered that MIT had already started that project and they called it a “food computer” and so rather than inventing the wheel again I just jumped in and said okay for at least have one box built, then I can continue with my project communicating with a high school students.

We started that and discovered that there was an interest here in the community. I am the first to build for computer in Omaha – we built two last summer and I was I have built two more over last semester.

Brandon: For would the goals be – to have this food computer in every school, the ability to control say the humidity and the weather for a growing plant – how does that help children?

Dr. Bastola: I’m sure a lot of people even don’t know the real taste of a lot of food, because most of the stuff that we get is from cold storage. This would help give fresh food. You’ll know exactly how the taste is going to be. We can grow oranges in Nebraska, but it’s not going to taste the same as what we have in California or Florida.

Brandon: Now why is that?

Dr. Bastola: It’s because of the climate. A plant basically is taking carbon-dioxide from the environment and taking nutrients from the root and it’s fixing it – basically that’s what it is doing. Unlike humans and animals plants have to use chemical means to adapt to the environment. If you’re hot, we’ll just walk out and take off our clothes, because that’s what we can do right.

We don’t have to go into the chemistry and modify our chemistry. But, unfortunately plants don’t have that ability. During the fall time, what happens is all the carbohydrates and sugars that they have in the leaf is sucked into the trunk. So, you’re decreasing the volume of water in there when it freezes during winter just like our water pipe it’s not going to burst, it’s a preventive mechanism. Something very similar happens in plants – that is – they use the chemistry they have to adjust to the environment. With the food computer what I want to show is what are those factors – what are the different factors that can influence the chemistry of it?

Also, what are the different biochemical processes? I’m excited about food computers because you can start talking about germination processes, we can start talking about growth of plants, how plant responds to say too much heat and too much cold – or high humidity or low humidity – cold weather or warm weather – all these things dictates what kind of plant can be grown in there. This is why I call it an excellent vehicle to communicate different aspects of growth and development relating to agricultural material.

Brandon: Dr. Kiran Bastola, thanks for joining me.

Dr. Bastola: Thank you very much for having me.

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