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Geoffry Davis wins ISPR presentation award

Geoffry Davis has won an award from the International Society of Photosynthesis Research (ISPR) for his presentation talk at the 17th International Congress on Photosynthesis Research.

The ISPR, founded in 1995, aims to promote the development of photosynthesis research as a basic and applied science. The International Congress, held once every three years, took place in Maastricht, the Netherlands, and Davis’s winning presentation was in the top three from among 600 posters.

Damage from fluctuating light

Geoffry, a PhD candidate in Cell and Molecular Biology who works in the Kramer lab at the MSU-DOE Plant Research Lab, has been examining photosynthesis, the source of energy for most of life on our planet. The specific study in question examines one of the forms plants store captured sunlight, an electric field generated by the chloroplast, the plant’s energy producing machine.

The discovery is that the electric field can spike in the presence of highly fluctuating light, ‘overcharging’ the plant and potentially damaging, even killing, it. “Think about it,” Geoffry says “light flickers all the time in nature (think of a leaf blowing in the wind or of a cloudy day).”

In addition to presenting his poster at the Congress, Geoffry was invited by conference organizers to give a seminar about his research.

“The talk went well, a lot of people really liked the story, and many agree with it! This is new work that contributes to our understanding of photosynthetic productivity and how plants live in their natural environment. Much of the previous body of photosynthesis research has been studied in isolated complexes or proteins.”

Heat spikes that damage plants
A depiction of energy spikes damaging to plants.
By the Kramer lab

Researching plants in dynamic environments

A remarkable aspect of Geoffry’s work is that researchers over the past decades figured out various aspects of the mechanism described in his research, by studying these isolated bits and pieces.

But no one was able to connect the dots until the Kramer lab at MSU developed the tools to study photosynthesis processes in living plants under real-world conditions.

It also became clear that the living plant works very differently compared to its isolated bits. Specifically, in the 1980s, it was generally thought that there was little, if any, electric field across one of the chloroplast components, called the thylakoid. 

“But it turns out the electric field is both very important to store energy and also potentially very damaging to the plant under fluctuating light conditions. Back then, scientists didn’t have the tools and information we have today, so no one put it in the context of a living, breathing organism.”

Moving forward

Geoffry believes this will change the way people look at photosynthesis. “I think within a couple of years, this research will be influential. Even though one can get a snapshot of how things work in the lab or even draw a cartoon of how things work, photosynthesis is turning out to be a more dynamic process than many have expected.”

Portrait of geoffry davis
Geoffry Davis

From a basic research aspect, Geoffry thinks researchers will want to understand how this electric field is controlled inside living plants, at the molecular level.

And there are application potentials. “Photosynthesis only uses a small amount of the light hitting the Earth. The idea is that if a system could use more of that light, one could generate more energy through photosynthesis.”

With that in mind, scientists have been trying to breed better plants that would increase crop yields for food and renewable resources.

“On the plus side, maybe we can discover plants that protect themselves from these changes in light, now we know the danger this situation poses. But, a less rosy implication is that, if flickering light can damage or kill plants, having plants that absorb more light might not be a viable strategy for increasing energy production. We don’t know the answer yet.”

Geoffry, originally from Las Vegas, obtained his BS in Biochemistry at the University of Maine in 2012. He joined MSU that same year and joined the Kramer lab in 2013. His study was recently published in the journal, eLIFE (link to publication and link to news release).


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