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In March of 2010 the Center welcomed its newest principal investigator, Dr. Doug Allen. Like his colleague, Dr. Ivan Baxter, Allen joined the Center through its partnership with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in their Plant Genetics Research Unit, where both are employed.
Dr. Allen has been working with oilseeds, primarily soybeans, throughout his career. A metabolic engineer by training, Allen focuses on seed filling metabolism. This is the study of the metabolic pathways that a plant uses to create the compounds in its seeds. Allen is researching how resources are allocated within filling seeds to make carbohydrate, protein and oil. Once these processes are better understood, it will become easier to modify plants for desirable traits such as greater oil content or the generation of other useful compounds.
“We need a better fundamental understanding in order to rationally improve crops for our purposes,” says Allen. “Understanding which of the seed’s metabolic pathways are the ‘interstates,’ and which ones are the ‘mud roads’ is very important. What are the benefits as well as disadvantages of different routes? How does the seed maximize the conversion of sugar it receives into final storage reserves?”
Plant seeds are already the world’s cheapest source of protein, oil and carbohydrates. However, soy and other seeds could become even more useful as a basis for biofuels if researchers are successful in increasing their oil content. Additionally, Allen points out that compounds such as polymers, plastics, detergents and adhesives are often made from petroleum. “We’d like to have renewable based alternatives to those, and plants have a unique repertoire for making many types of complex compounds, so there is really great hope that plants will provide part of that renewable answer.”
During his childhood Allen’s family grew soybean and corn, and he modestly describes himself as a “farm boy from Southwest Iowa.” He readily admits that some of his interests in plant science stems from his upbringing, and is motivated with a hope to “improve the plight of the family farm.”
Dr. Allen spoke highly of his impression of the Center and the research that occurs here as well as the unique relationship between the USDA and the Center. “It’s been great so far. There’s a big benefit being associated with a building full of people that are truly plant experts. Both the USDA and the Danforth Center foster cutting edge research in plant sciences and it is exciting to be a part of that.”
To learn more about Dr. Allen visit: http://www.danforthcenter.org/science/laboratories/douglas_allen/