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Dr. Kenneth Helm

Kenneth W. Helm
Associate Professor

B.S. , M.S. University of Arizona (1981, 1984)
Ph.D. University of Wyoming (1989)
Postdoctoral studies at University of Arizona (1989-1993)

Courses: Cell Biology, Plant Physiology and Advanced General Biology

We humans have the ability to avoid poor weather. For example, we can put on a coat when it's cold, get out of the hot sun, and seek shelter from a storm. Plants, on the other hand, are stuck in the ground, and as a consequence must endure environmental extremes that would kill most animals. How plants survive these environmental stresses is a question that I find intriguing. Plants have a battery of unique molecular responses enabling them to survive the rapid changes in their environment. I am most interested in understanding the mechanisms that plants use to survive high temperatures, particularly in the role of specialized heat shock proteins, which are thought to be key players in cellular adaptation to heat stress. Students working in my laboratory use molecular and biochemical techniques to answer basic questions about the plant heat shock response.

Why study "Plant Stress"? The very same environmental stresses that we impose on plants in the laboratory are a natural part of every day life for all plants, including crop plants. Indeed, agriculture faces the dual challenge of feeding more people using progressively poorer growing conditions. Thus, it is critical that we understand how plants tolerate environmental stress. This information will be applied to crop improvement strategies, resulting in higher agronomic yields, and a more reliable supply of food in the future.

In my upper division Plant Physiology class, I emphasize how plants are tuned-in to their environment, and how well they are able to adapt with ease to the aforementioned environmental changes. After a brief survey of plant form and function, I introduce students to the mechanisms that plants use to regulate their internal water status, and to sense and respond to environmental stimuli such as light, temperature, and insect attack. We also explore the means by which plants control their growth and development. Throughout, students explore these concepts with lab exercises that not only serve to illustrate the phenomena, but also teach valuable critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

For the sophomore-level Cell Biology course, which I co-teach with Drs. Hayden and Bazinet, I take much the same approach as in Plant Physiology, but on a more general level. The major goal of the course is to introduce students to the fascinating inner workings of the cell. In the laboratory the concepts of lecture are reinforced with illustrative experiments. All the while, the students are challenged to work with precision, interpret complex data, and understand key biological concepts.

Representative Publications

Expression and native structure of cytosolic class II heat shock proteins. Helm, K.W., Lee, G.J. and E. Vierling. 1997. Plant Physiol., 114:1477-1485.

An endomembrane localized small heat shock protein from Arabidopsis thaliana. Helm, K.W., Schmeits, J. and E. Vierling. 1995. Plant Phsiol. 107:287-288.

Localization of small heat shock proteins to the higher plant endomembrane system. Helm, K.W., LaFayette, P.R. Nagao, R.T., Key, J.L. and E. Vierling. 1993. Mol. Cell. Biol. 13(1):238-247.