Interdisciplinary Approach for Modern Biological Inquiry
Many research efforts in the PRL involve multiple laboratories, coordinating the research efforts of the department for greater impact and discovery than could be accomplished as the sum of a collection of individual investigators. These collective project areas tackle some of today's most challenging academic scientific questions and have implications for concerns of societal food/energy sustainability. Indeed, the PRL has an established history of targeting interdisciplinary research questions that require a greater scientific involvement than can be accomplished within the lab of a single PI.
Currently, core research areas of interest to the PRL include:
The vast majority research on plants has been carried out using plants grown within the highly artificial conditions of a lab growth chamber. Yet, to thrive in natural environments plants must contend with highly dynamic growth conditions with rapid fluctuations in a variety of factors (e.g. light, temperature). This project aims to specifically examine the functions of genes and pathways involved in enhancing photosynthetic robustness in an ever-changing environment. These studies will uncover the cryptic functions of a large number of plant genes as well as have important implications for allowing plant scientists to translate their results from the lab to the field.
Photosynthetic cells couple the energy they absorb in sunlight to the generation of chemical bonds, creating billions of tons of biomass annually. How the primary carbon metabolites of the Calvin Cycle are proportioned to different pathways (e.g. to Growth vs. Defense, or towards Carbohydrate Storage vs. Expansion of Photosynthetic Tissue) ultimately dictate the short- and long-term resilience, productivity, and efficiency of a photosynthetic organism. Understanding how plants and microalgae sense and proportion their carbon balance is a fundamental knowledge that is also of importance to understand how to select/engineer plant strains with maximal photosynthetic capture-to-biomass conversion efficiencies.
The PRL is utilizing concepts borrowed from electrical engineering and synthetic biology to advance the capacity of plant scientists to study and reprogram photosynthetic systems. This group project relies heavily upon the concept of utilizing biological modules that provide discrete functions that can be separated from their original context and refactored and assembled in a "plug-and-play" fashion into novel biological pathways. The project centers heavily on structure/function studies of proteins and subcellular compartments of cyanobacteria that will ultimately allow us to repurpose these natural building blocks into flexible modules for the purpose of improving photosynthetic productivity in cyanobacteria and plants.