1. Staff

Elison Blancaflor, Ph.D.


Current Research

The Problem

Crop cultivars for sustainable agricultural systems should exhibit minimal growth and developmental defects when water and nutrients are limiting or when their survival is endangered by harmful microbes. Like other organisms, plants respond to their environment by activating complex networks of signaling pathways within their cells. The initial perception and transduction of the environmental signal then leads to specific changes in the manner by which the plant grows and develops. Therefore, the quantity and quality of the desired plant product, whether it be for food, fiber or forage, is influenced by biological processes that first occur within the cell. We seek to harness basic knowledge gained from studying plant cells into products that benefit crop productivity and sustainable agriculture. However, achieving this goal is hindered by gaps in understanding how a plant cell translates information encoded within its genetic blueprint into a specific developmental pathway or growth response. Bridging these gaps will require the application of modern biological tools to learn not only how individual plant cells work but also how they respond to their neighbors in the context of changing environmental conditions.

The Approach

We peer into the intricate workings of cells within the plant root system. Cellular structures of interest within a root cell are tagged with genetically-encoded fluorescent proteins, and their organization and dynamics are studied using advanced light microscopy techniques. Light microscopy is combined with genetic, genomic and biochemical tools to better understand how specific components of the cell, either alone or in coordination with each other, shape the architecture of the root. Research focus has been on a component of the cell called the cytoskeleton, an elaborate network of dynamic, filamentous proteins that serve as the "highways" through which materials required for building a cell, and ultimately the entire root system, are transported. Thus, the cytoskeleton, and the associated protein complexes that regulate its function, present underexplored molecular targets for improving root traits in crops for use in low-input agriculture. Of particular interest is how root cells use the cytoskeleton to perceive and respond to environmental signals such as gravity (including microgravity in space), water, nutrients and microbes. Understanding how these major environmental signals, which play a profound role in specifying root architecture, is crucial to developing crops with more efficient roots not only for agriculture on Earth but also for future plant habitats to support human exploration of space. The research questions of interest in the Blancaflor laboratory are addressed by conducting basic and applied research on model and crop plants. For example, basic studies of mutants in the model plants Arabidopsis thaliana and Medicago truncatula with defects in root development have led researchers in the laboratory to uncover new proteins that coordinate crosstalk between the cytoskeleton and the plant endomembrane system. Furthermore, NASA-funded research on the space shuttle and more recently on the International Space Station (ISS) has also led the group to better understand how the spaceflight environment modulates certain aspects of root development.

To translate basic discoveries made at the cellular and molecular level to tangible agricultural products, the Plant Cell Biology laboratory recently initiated research to study whole root systems of forage crops (e.g., wheat, alfalfa and tall fescue) that are relevant to agriculture in the Southern Great Plains of the USA. Through collaborations with other groups in the Noble Research Institute Forage Improvement and Agricultural divisions, we are implementing methods that will enable plant breeders to select for root traits that confer a yield advantage to forage crops. To this end, researchers in the laboratory are attempting to apply their current expertise in imaging roots at the cellular level to imaging whole root systems in the field.

Current Projects

  • Interplay between the cytoskeleton and endomembrane system in shaping root system architecture
  • Improving root system architecture in forage crops
  • Signaling roles of lipids during plant growth and development
  • Impact of microgravity and the spaceflight environment on plant growth and development
  • Doctor of Philosophy in Biology, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, 1996

Project Title: Leveraging spaceflight genomic data to uncover developmental and cell type specific gene regulatory networks in plants responding to gravity
Source: NASA
Term: 2019 to 2022

Project Title: The use of microgravity simulators for a mechanistic understanding of cytoskeletal-mediated regulation of root growth directionality
Source: NASA
Term: 2018 to 2021

Project Title: Integrated imaging and modeling toolbox for accelerated development of root-focused crops at field scales
Source: U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E)
Term: 2017 to 2020

Project Title: Using chemical genetics to uncover novel regulators of root system architecture and hormone responses in plants
Source: Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology
Term: 2015 to 2017

Project Title: Utilizing the Advanced Biological Research System (ABRS) on the International Space Station (ISS) to uncover microgravity's impact on root development and cell wall architecture
Source: NASA
Term: 2012 to 2017

Project Title: Genomics and modification of switchgrass for improved biomass and recalitrance
Source: U.S. Department of Energy Bioenergy Research Centers
Term: 2012 to 2017

Project Title: N-Acylethanolamine metabolism and the acquisition of photoautotrophy during seedling establishment
Source: U. S. Department of Energy Biosciences
Term: 2014 to 2016

Project Title: Amidase-mediated modulation of N-acylethanolamine (NAE) signaling in plants
Source: U.S. Department of Energy Biosciences
Term: 2011 to 2014

Project Title: Actin regulation of Arabidopsis root growth and orientation during space flight
Source: NASA-Biological Research In Canisters (BRIC) for STS-131 Mission
Term: 2010 to 2012

Project Title: Cross-talk between actin and auxin in root growth
Source: Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology
Term: 2010 to 2012

Project Title: DOE Bioenergy Research Centers
Source of support: U.S. Department of Energy Bioenergy Research Centers
Term: 2008 to 2013

Project Title: Amidase-mediated modulation of N-acylethanolamine (NAE) signaling in plants
Source: U.S. Department of Energy Biosciences
Term: 2008 to 2011

Project Title: Regulation of tip growth direction in plants
Source: Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology
Term: 2008 to 2010

Project Title: MRI: acquisition of a spinning disk confocal microscope for rapid imaging of plant cellular processes
Source: National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation Program
Term: 2007 to 2010

Project Title: Supplemental Research Opportunity Award for Dr. Magaly Rincon-Zachary, Midwestern State University, to support three-month sabbatical at the Noble Research Institute
Source: National Science Foundation Research Opportunities Award
Term: Summer 2006

Project Title: Amidase-mediated modulation of N-acylethanolamine (NAE) signaling in plants
Source: U.S. Department of Energy Biosciences
Term: 2005 to 2008

Project Title: A single photon confocal laser scanning microscope for multi-spectral imaging of plant cellular processes
Source: National Science Foundation Multi-user Instrumentation
Term: 2004 to 2007

Project Title: Enhanced labeling techniques to study the cytoskeleton during root growth and gravitropism
Source: NASA-Fundamental Space Biology
Term: 2001 to 2005

  • Thora W. Halstead Young Investigator's Award, American Society for Gravitational and Space Research, 2005
  • Chapman, et al., Plant fatty acid amide hydrolases. U.S. Patent No. 7,316,928 (issued Jan 8, 2008).
  • Srivastava, et al., Methods and compositions for altering lignin composition in plants. U.S. Patent Appl. Publication No. 20150322448 (filed May 12, 2015).