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By Stephen Collins '74
Sowing wild oats is all in a day's work for Assistant Professor of Biology Russell Johnson. Literally, not metaphorically. The botanist studies plant physiology and the molecular biology of seeds as they germinate and while they are dormant, and he grows Avena fatua, a strain of wild oats from Montana, in the Olin Science Center research greenhouse. When he's not on the job you might find him sowing lettuce, carrots, peas and beans near what generations of students knew as "Colby Corner," next to the Pleasant Street Methodist Church downtown. Johnson is one of several Colby faculty and staff members who help raise produce at the church's stewardship garden for the local homeless shelter, food bank and soup kitchen.
The soft-spoken Johnson grows animated explaining minute details of how plants work-why, for example, sweet corn is sweet. "Sweet corn is a mutant strain of corn that doesn't make starch properly," he said. While regular corn converts sugars into starch polymers, sweet corn was developed to prevent that from happening. "It has a defective enzyme so that all of the sugars just pile up in the kernel."
Johnson's research is focused on the minutest details of plant physiology, including how and why, at the biochemical level, seeds germinate and how stable plant mRNA is. He attributes those interests to good professors who got him interested in plant biology, and he says that, combined with a concern for human impact on the environment, led him to agricultural research, since agriculture is arguably the biggest impact mankind has on the planet.
Practical applications of his research are increased understanding and control of germination and dormancy. "When you plant, you want the seeds to germinate synchronously and quickly," he said. When growing oats or wheat, it's critical that there's enough dormancy to prevent pre-harvest sprouting while the grain is still on the stalk but not so much that germination would be impaired when the seed grain is planted a year or more later.
At the Methodist Church's stewardship garden Johnson is coordinator of a corps of volunteers (including several Colby families) that keeps the 25- by 50-foot plot immaculate and incredibly productive. The garden was begun in 1998. Susan Mackenzie '80, who teaches a Jan Plan course titled "The Greening of Faith," said she proposed the project, where a parsonage had been razed, "to reclaim the earth, take care of it and provide this really healthy produce to people in the area who are hungry." She, her husband, Michael Donihue '79 (economics), Debbie and Jim Thurston (theater and dance) and a couple of other Colby families worked on aspects of the project before Johnson took over as coordinator.
The project attracts a mixture of green thumbs and greenhorns, some who come to work and teach and some who want to learn as they work. Johnson gets the same satisfaction explaining the importance of planting lettuce seeds in cool soil or pruning tomato sprouts to increase yield that he does teaching botany, plant physiology and plant development to talented biochemistry students in Arey. "It's a great way to teach my daughter [5-year-old Ursula] about botany," he said.
In addition, Johnson gets enormous satisfaction from seeing a bounty of fresh, healthful food-hundreds of grocery bags full every summer-go to people who really need it. "This is the first place I've lived where I haven't had my own garden," said Johnson, who traces his love of gardening to his childhood in Pullman, Wash. It's also the first place where he can pick a backpack full of fresh produce, hop on his bicycle and deliver it to the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter on his way home.
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College Colby Magazine 4181
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