Elison Blancaflor, Ph.D.
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.
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 Blancaflor 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 Foundation 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.
- 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