Research interests

Understanding and engineering the logic behind plant decisions

Multicellular organisms begin with a single cell dividing and producing a group of cells that will mature into distinct cell types. Although each cell type varies in function and appearance, they all have the same genetic material. The genome has specific instructions for each cell type, but individual cells determine which parts of the genome to read and which to disregard. Our laboratory investigates how plant cells make decisions about which genetic information to read based on developmental or environmental signals.

Our research findings and technology development will enhance comprehension of the fundamental rules governing transcriptional regulation. Moreover, they will assist in guiding breeding programs of agriculturally significant plants.

The role of DNA Methylation in transcriptional memory

In addition to the stable and identical genome found throughout an organism, there is the ever-changing epigenome that varies between cell types. The epigenetic landscape, determined by the absence or presence of epigenetic marks like DNA methylation, plays a role in regulating the expression of specific genes in response to developmental or environmental signals. In plants, DNA methylation can activate or repress genes in a heritable way maintaining changes through cell division or even over generations. However, the amount of DNA methylation and its effect on gene transcription can be dynamic, making it difficult to understand the underlying mechanism. By studying this process and its impact on gene silencing, we can gain a better understanding of how cells control their development and respond to the environment.

Our focus is on using synthetic biology to expand our knowledge of how plants utilize DNA methylation to interpret and retain developmental and environmental cues. Our objective is to create a collection of methylation-sensitive promoter modules to gain insights into the regulation of gene expression and to design innovative synthetic systems that can be responsive to methylation.

Integrating epigenetic memory into synthetic systems

Aside from comprehending the concept of epigenetic memory in plants, it is crucial for this knowledge to aid in the advancement of the upcoming generation of crop varieties. In terms of synthetic biology, DNA methylation serves as a means to effectively preserve new information introduced by a substance or circumstance within synthetic systems.

The ability to direct the expression of specific genes in specific cells under specific conditions requires flexible synthetic systems that can take in and store information. Current synthetic systems for manipulating traits are often limited by their reliance on the constitutive expression of pathway components, leading to unwanted exogenous expression and phenotypes. While the inclusion of inducible promoters takes a step closer to systems that can receive information in the form of specific compounds or conditions, this induction is only active for the duration of the stimulus and is not stored.

Instead we aim to develop tools and systems that give the plant new ways to interpret and react to its surroundings through the optimization and development of new targeted epimutagenesis tools and the assembly of control systems to regulate the expression of extensive multigene pathways.

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