Remembering Todd C. Mockler

On January 6, 2023, we were deeply saddened by the passing of Dr. Todd C. Mockler, Member and Geraldine and Robert Virgil Distinguished Investigator at the Danforth Center since 2011. Todd was a wonderful colleague, collaborator, and friend to so many of us at the Center and beyond. He was a scientist-entrepreneur who had a positive impact on plant science and successfully translated his discoveries into real-world solutions for food and agriculture.

A Life in Science

As a child, Todd loved math and science, and “figuring out how things work.” He thought he wanted to be a medical doctor. After starting a pre-med program at Wesleyan University, he did a stint in a lab studying yeast, which turned him on to research at the lab bench. After completing his undergraduate degree, he worked on human gene therapy at a biotechnology company in San Diego. He backed into plant biology while in graduate school at UCLA. Todd said, “I was interested in immunology at first, but realized one day that not everybody gets sick, but everybody eats.”

He received his Ph.D. in 2002 working with Chentao Lin on mechanisms of light photoreception by plants. He went on to do postdoctoral training at the Salk Institute with Joanne Chory, where he began analyzing plant gene expression networks using computational and genomics approaches.

In 2006, Todd was hired and rose to the level of associate professor at Oregon State University, where he established himself as a fearless, computationally savvy plant scientist who wanted to understand how plants respond to changes in their environment. In 2011, Todd moved his lab to the Danforth Center in St. Louis, where he was honored as the Geraldine and Robert Virgil Distinguished Investigator. He was well-known as a sought-out collaborator around the world. Todd expanded his research with significant effort invested in sorghum genomics and phenotyping. Overall, Todd coauthored nearly 100 scientific research articles, and mentored dozens of technicians, undergraduate students, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows.

Diving Deep Into Data

The Mockler Lab’s research on sorghum at the Danforth Center developed almost through chance. Todd was working mostly in model plants, like Brachypodium, when he was invited to attend a sorghum conference as an external observer in 2012. Todd said, “Sorghum is this amazing crop with innate drought and heat tolerance. I realized I wanted to work with it.” Through funding from several federal agencies and foundations, sorghum eventually dominated research in Todd’s group.

Work that he was particularly proud of was done through his participation in the TERRA-REF project. Plant breeding is often limited by the speed at which phenotypes can be measured and how efficiently actionable biological information can be extracted from these measurements. The TERRA-REF field phenotyping system was developed b in Maricopa, AZ, with numerous sensors on a giant gantry system to monitor crop growth and development under various field conditions. The data collected and analyzed is being used to accelerate sorghum breeding, and to test new ways of capturing field performance data. “In 4 years, we went from an empty field to operating the world’s largest agricultural robot,” said Todd. The project included more than 50 researchers at 14 organizations, sequenced 400 sorghum genomes, and established a data science infrastructure and knowledge base.

Through the years, Todd and his team generated tremendous volumes of genomic, transcriptomic and high-throughput phenotyping data in plants. With his affinity toward quantitative analysis, Todd focused much energy on computational tools, including AI, to make sense of it all. Advances in these areas had unexpected applications and extensive entrepreneurial impact.

A Scientist-Entrepreneur

While at OSU, Todd noticed that he was being showered with requests from collaborators to analyze high-throughput genome and transcriptomic data, using tools that his team developed. Sensing a broader need and opportunity, Todd co-founded a start-up company called Intuitive Genomics with Doug Bryant and others to help companies gain insights into their newly acquired genome expression data. When Todd moved to St. Louis, so did Intuitive Genomics. A few years later, the company was bought by NewLeaf Symbiotics, with Todd and Doug taking on data science roles in the company.

In the summer of 2012, Todd met Matt Crisp and co-launched a company to improve crops though improving photosynthesis. Todd thought “photosynthesis was known as an intractable problem - how do we improve it? We thought applying cutting-edge computational science could make the difference.” With Matt as CEO of Benson Hill, Todd was the first CTO. Although photosynthesis faded from the company’s sights, and with numerous twists and turns over the following 10 years, Benson Hill developed as one of the most successful start-ups in agriculture and food technology. Now a public company with 450 employees (as of 2023) and headquarters on the Danforth Center campus.

Todd’s legacy as a scientist-entrepreneur will be felt for a long time in St. Louis and beyond. He left us far too soon, and we miss him dearly.

Celebrating the Life of a Scientist-Entrepreneur: Todd C. Mockler, PhD