Spotlight on Dorina Podar

31 May 2019 - By: Angie Burnett

Spotlight on Dorina Podar

Dorina Podar

Angie Burnett catches up with Dorina Podar, a long standing SEB member and researcher at Babes-Bolyay University, Romania. Dorina researches heavy metals and plants and Angie finds out how and why.

Dorina’s research involves investigating the effects of heavy metal pollution in soils on plants and microorganisms, and their ion transporters. Her research has a particular focus on the heavy metals zinc and cadmium. “Zinc is not only a micronutrient for plants, but also for humans,” Dorina explains. “Both its deficiency and excess can have detrimental effects on plants and humans.” In contrast, cadmium is a toxic metal for plants and humans, even at very low concentrations.

As is so often the case in biological systems, these metals have interacting effects on plants. Dorina and her colleagues have found that the presence of zinc in soils can attenuate uptake of cadmium in plants.1 They also discovered that heterogeneous distribution of zinc and cadmium in soils can allow plants (e.g. Brassica juncea, known as Indian mustard) to grow better than in soils with the same concentrations of homogeneously distributed metals.

As well as examining the effects of zinc on plant growth, Dorina and her colleagues are interested in how zinc mineral deficiency in humans could be alleviated by manipulating zinc transport in crop plants. In their proof of principle study,2 using barley as a model system, they showed that specific tissue overexpression of the vacuolar membrane zinc transporter metal tolerance protein 1 (MTP1) led to a 30% increase in zinc concentration in the endosperm of barley grains. “This is important because grains constitute a significant part of humans’ diet,” explains Dorina, “especially the endosperm, from which flour is made.”

“My former supervisor Professor Dale Sanders used to say, ‘We are what we eat,’” adds Dorina. “As plants are part of the human diet, their health and quality can directly influence ours. Metal accumulation in plants and its effects on human health are important aspects of our lives. The interactions between plants and metal ions in soil and between plants and the microorganisms within the rhizosphere can shape the plant metal content and, therefore, our health. This means that the research I am doing has potential applications for improving human nutrition and for remediation of environments. Both aspects affect human health, and in a world where illness is present daily, I feel I can make my work count.”

The application of Dorina’s research is very real to her. In Romania, there are many tailings (deposits of waste ore) from the mining industry. “During the year I started my PhD, there was a severe accident at a tailing and that made me go there to start my research,” she explains. Dorina can see tangible impacts of her work: her research findings were taken into consideration by the UK government during the creation of guidelines for the contaminated land exposure assessment (CLEA) tool. On a local level, she has been able to interact with the community, including educating children about plants and the hazards associated with collecting plants from contaminated land.

In addition to her work on heavy metals, Dorina has recently started pursuing a new research avenue, using anatomy to assess plant biodiversity, along with ecologists Drs Mihai Pușcaș and Philippe Choler. Dorina and her colleagues are working to link genetic information with anatomical cross sections for different populations of grasses from across Europe.
Nardus stricta leaf cross-section, stained according to cell wall type
Nardus stricta leaf cross-section, stained according to cell wall type Photo: Dorina Podar and Zoltan R. Balazs


To complement Dorina’s research in her home country, she has been fortunate to work with great scientists in other countries. These include the late Professor Zoltán Tuba in Hungary, and Professors Michael Ramsey and Michael Hutchings (Sussex University, UK) as part of the Marie Curie Training programme3 during her PhD, which she describes as the most fulfilling year of her career. Upon completing her PhD in plant science, Dorina became an assistant lecturer at Babeş-Bolyai University, Romania. She also spent a year as a fellow in Professor Nathalie Verbruggen’s laboratory at Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium, before working as a postdoc with Professor Dale Sanders at the University of York, UK. These positions all offered great opportunities for Dorina to flourish professionally. “During these periods, I came across metal transporters and molecular techniques. I developed a lot. Not a day passed without me learning something— even something small.” Dale’s mentorship has been especially valuable to Dorina, and she remembers his advice every day.

Now at Babeş-Bolyai University, Dorina balances many teaching duties with her research. “There is no typical day,” she says. “One day I may have teaching for 6 to 8 hours, other days I teach 2 to 4 hours, others none.” The practical lessons are varied: as part of Histology and Anatomy of Plants, Dorina helps students learn to recognise and characterise different plant tissues, whilst for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology of Plants, her students extract nucleic acids, amplify and clone genes, and use reporter genes for localisation studies. Watching students develop is fulfilling, Dorina says, and seeing their curiosity motivates her to teach—just as her own curiosity motivates her research activities.

If she could work on anything, Dorina would like to tackle the structural biology side of transporters. “Structure gives information about how transporters work, and about key amino acid residues involved in transport,” Dorina explains. “By understanding these processes and molecules, we can manipulate transporters in order to make them more selective or increase their efficiencies. This helps plants to get the good metals in, whilst keeping the bad metals out.”

Dorina has been a SEB member for over 10 years and is enjoying reaping the benefits of membership. “SEB has offered an amazing platform for meeting people, for finding out what other people are working on,” says Dorina. “I like the journals, the meetings are great, and as a member you get discounts for publishing and attending the meetings.” Finally, I ask how Dorina would advise somebody starting out in her field. “Be determined, do not give up when experiments do not work, learn from people around you, and be open minded. Join scientific societies like SEB. SEB is great for young scientists for it gives them the opportunity and the means to travel to meetings and to visit other laboratories.”

1. https://nph.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/ j.1469-8137.2004.01122.x

2. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/pbi.12749

3. https://ec.europa.eu/research/mariecurieactions/actions/get-funding/innovative-training-networks_en

Category: Plant Biology
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