We believe that it is our responsibility as researchers to try to uncover phenomena that can be used to solve global problems. Problems like how to produce enough food to feed the growing human population and how to produce medicines needed to prevent or treat major diseases. As biologists with expertise in bioengineering plant metabolism, we focus to understand the genetics of how plants produce specialized metabolites that function to minimize yield loss caused by pathogens, pests, and climate change, and metabolites that have medicinal properties.
Gene Regulatory Networks
Phytoalexins are defense metabolites that are biosynthesized in plants in response to pathogens. They are biosynthesize in low amounts and only transiently. Yet, numerous phytoalexins, such as the glyceollins from soybean, have valuable medicinal properties that render them attractive for pharmaceutical development. Glyceollin I has broad-spectrum anticancer and neuroprotective activities. It also has a major role in defending soybean plants against Phytophthora sojae, a major water mold pathogen that causes 1-2 billion dollars in soybean yield loss per year worldwide.
With the aim to help improve accessibility to phytoalexins, we are studying how their biosynthesis is regulated using the glyceollins in soybean as a model. We are currently focusing on understanding the networks of transcription factors that regulate the expression of glyceollin biosynthesis genes. We are also studying what genes in the network are conserved among plant species. Modifying the expression genes of the transcription factor network could be the key to unlocking phytoalexin biosynthesis. Enhancing phytoalexin synthesis in plants could generate economical sources of medicines and plants that have greater yields due to their enhanced disease resistance.
Many plant species are valuable sources of specialized metabolites. However, a common feature of most plants is that they biosynthesize these metabolites in relatively low amounts. While bioengineering has the potential to enhance metabolism, modifications have been limited to single or small sets of genes due to the low efficiency genetic transformation methods for plants. Our lab is focusing on developing more efficient methods to manipulate multigene networks in plants.