Plant research at CSHL explores fundamental mechanisms in plant development and genetics with a goal of increasing crop productivity and biodiversity, and reducing climate change through exploring the potential of biofuels.
The plant biology group at CSHL focuses on plant development and gene expression, in an effort to uncover basic mechanisms that could lead to increased crop productivity, increased biodiversity and exploring the potential of biofuels. Researchers use Arabidopsis, maize, tomato and duckweed as model systems to uncover the principles that govern plant growth. Much of this work takes place on 12 acres of farmland at the nearby CSHL Uplands Farm, where expert staff raise crops and Arabidopsis plants for study. Research also involves bioinformatics and quantitative analysis of large data sets for functional genomics and developmental genetics, and has contributed to more than two dozen large scale collaborative genome projects funded by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the United States Department of Agriculture.
At CSHL, plant research has a storied history, including Nobel prize-winning research done by Barbara McClintock in the 1940s and 50s. The transposable genetic elements, or “jumping genes,” that she discovered decades ago are now understood to reprogram the epigenome, and are used as research tools by current CSHL researchers studying plant genomes.
My lab studies genes and signals in cells that regulate the growth and shape of plants. We have discovered several genes that control plant architecture by exerting an influence on stem cells. By identifying the genes that control the number of stem cells in corn plants, for example, we’ve discovered a means of boosting the yield of that vital staple.
My research team studies the genes that determine when and where, and thus how many, flowers are produced on plants. Flowers form on branches called inflorescences, which originate from stem cells. By studying the genes that control how stem cells become inflorescences, we are able to manipulate flower production to improve crop yields.
Chromosomes are covered with chemical modifications that help control gene expression. I study this secondary genetic code - the epigenome - and how it is guided by small mobile RNAs in plants and fission yeast. Our discoveries impact plant breeding and human health, and we use this and other genomic information to improve aquatic plants as a source of bioenergy.
Over the last two decades, revolutionary improvements in DNA sequencing technology have made it faster, more accurate, and much cheaper. We are now able to sequence up to 10 trillion DNA letters in just one month. I harness these technological advancements to assemble genomes for a variety of organisms and probe the genetic basis of neurological disorders, including autism and schizophrenia, better understand cancer progression and understand the complex structures of the genomes of higher plants.
Unlike animals, plants neither have specific organs that see or hear various stimuli, yet, plants are sensitive to their surrounding environment and modify their development according to various external signals. My lab studies how the environment of a plant modulates its growth and development. Understanding environmental control of growth will have far-reaching implications for agriculture, energy production, and many other human activities.
When we think of evolution, we often think about physical changes, like a plant developing broader leaves to collect more solar energy. Such evolution actually occurs within the plant’s DNA. I am using computational analysis and modeling to visualize how plant genomes have evolved over time, particularly those of staple crops. We are learning from this work to improve the range and yield of modern plants.