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Dmitri Nusinow, Ph.D. joined the Danforth Center in 2012 as an Assistant Member and Principal Investigator. His research is focused on understanding how the circadian clock is integrated with environmental signals to control growth, physiology and development. This knowledge can be used to improve the productivity of crops.
Q: In a nutshell, how do you describe your research? Circadian is Latin for "about-a-day". Organisms have a 24-hour clock, known as the circadian clock that allows them to anticipate and react to the sunrise, sunset and the changing day length of the seasons. This internal mechanism assists plants during the day when they capture light energy through photosynthesis and at night to convert captured carbon into biomass. My lab is interested in understanding at a very deep level how the clock regulates these processes and which processes within plants are directly related and which are indirectly related to the circadian clock.
Q: Why is understanding the circadian clock and evening complex in plants imperative to efforts to improve crops? It has been scientifically recognized that the circadian clock regulates a number of processes inside the plant, including photosynthesis, growth, and reproduction, as well as how plants respond to drought and changing temperatures. Understanding how the clock functions to regulate these processes will provide information that can then be used to improve their growth and ability to deal with a variety of environmental factors.
A specific example is our work to interpret how a plant’s clock regulates flowering. In the case of developing crops for biofuels, that knowledge might be very useful because if flowering could be delayed, it would allow the plant to continue to grow and increase its biomass for harvesting later in the season.
The insight that we’re gaining will allow us to better alter the clock which will, in turn, allow us to more accurately affect processes of interest without interfering with other important plant processes.
Q: Are there any new or exciting technologies used to conduct this research?Quantitative mass spectrometry is extremely important to this work; it allows us to identify proteins and measure the exact composition of these complexes. These technologies allow us to go from being able to identify a single complex to being able to understand how the complex changes and matures over the course of the day or lifetime of the organism.
The Center’s proteomics and mass spectrometry facility gives us the ability to interrogate the function of many genes and by combining mass spectrometry with genetics, we’ve been able to really understand how proteins are formed into complexes and how those complexes interact to regulate specific pathways such as growth.
Q: What inspired you or guided you in to the field of science? I became interested in plant science after viewing a time-lapsed movie from Indiana University Professor, Roger Hangarter. Roger was able to capture a juvenile sunflower plant tracking the sun during the day and then prior to the sun rising the next morning, the sunflower repositioned itself towards the east, in anticipation of the sun rising.
For me, the movie demonstrated how dynamic plants are and how they have very complicated responses to the environment. Plants have this incredible ability to anticipate changes in the environment, such as sunrise and sunset, without having a brain or neural network governing these complex reactions. As a biochemist, it suggested to me that plants were a good system for understanding the mechanistic bases of very complex responses.
Q: What is your impression of St. Louis and the Danforth Center since moving here in 2012? The Danforth Center is unlike any other institution that I’ve ever seen and is an amazing place to work. The facilities, the faculty, and the resources here accelerate the potential for translating research into products that can have real world impact. My wife and I have a daughter and St. Louis has a lot to offer our family. We enjoy visiting the unique City Museum and attending cultural festivals and events. We’ve come to enjoy the variety of seasons and we try to take advantage of all that St. Louis has to offer.
Q: Since coming here in 2012, how has your lab grown? My first laboratory has grown in such a short period of time. Currently, the team includes one postdoc, one staff research scientist technician and one undergraduate lab assistant. We’ve also trained one undergraduate intern and two high school students from the St. Louis area through our Research Experiences for Undergraduates summer internship program, the STARS program and the Center’s education outreach program.
Q: Why study Arabidopsis over other crops? We study Arabidopsis because it is the most well-studied, has the greatest number of tools for basic science research and it has been a reference organism for many of the other agricultural species. The information gained from studying Arabidopsis translates into a variety of important agriculture species, such as biofuel grasses, cereal crops and upcoming crops of interest like sorghum.
Q: Are there any committees or groups that you’re involved with at the Center? I currently have the pleasure to be the faculty liaison for the Center’s Committee for Scientific Training and Mentoring (CSTM) and am on the scientific retreat committee. I also have an adjunct position at Washington University.
Q: In your eyes, how has plant science evolved in the past 5 years? Plant science is taking advantage of all of the tools in next generation sequencing and the collection of large data sets from model organisms to major crops. Sequencing technology has become essential and an impactful resource to plant science and has allowed plant scientists to investigate processes that might be very unique to that individual plant that we were unable to investigate previously.
For more on Dr. Nusinow's research and the circadian clock, click here. To view our infographic on the Circadian Clock's impact on plant growth and development, click here.
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