Douglas Allen,

PhD

USDA Research Scientist, Associate Member

Our Dependence on Plants

Plants are everywhere. They’re so common that we often take them for granted.

Doug Allen and his lab are well-aware of our universal dependence on plants to meet our basic needs — not only as sources of food, but also by producing fuel, fiber, plastic products, adhesives, detergents, and other items that are traditionally derived from petroleum resources. Plants also produce the oxygen we breathe, consume carbon dioxide, detoxify soil and water, and basically work to counteract many of the problems that human intervention has created. Simply put, we could not survive without plants.

“Plants provide sustenance but also greatly impact quality of life. For many reasons, life on this planet would not be possible or bearable without plants,” explains Doug.

Increasing Plant Productivity

Doug and his lab want to understand how plants produce valuable resources that we depend on every day. Just as we gain energy and nutrition from a balanced diet, Doug’s lab researches how plants convert energy from sunlight along with carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to make carbohydrates, proteins and oil that are densely packaged into the seeds, the components that we usually harvest from crops.

In a world with a growing population and new environmental challenges, research pursued in Doug’s lab is increasingly critical to improving plant productivity. His lab provides insights that aid our understanding and the development of better crops needed to sustain our growing population and continue to improve quality of life for all.

Powering Our Planet with Plants

Petroleum is a non-renewable resource that is vital to our existence and central to the manufacturing of fuel for vehicles, and plastics and polymers that are ubiquitous in daily life. To decrease our dependence on this finite resource, Doug’s lab is researching how to increase the levels of vegetable oil in plant tissues. This includes studies of carbon metabolism in seeds where oils are normally made, and in leaves where photosynthesis occurs predominantly. Conversely, leaves can make oils, and some seeds can do photosynthesis, thus his lab is interested in how to capitalize on the versatility of plants to produce what we need most efficiently for the good of the planet. The lab has studies in soybean but also other oilseeds including canola and camelina, and focuses on photosynthesis in grasses, legumes, oilseeds, and algae. Production of more biomass that’s rich in oils could answer many of societies’ needs.

Creating Community in the Lab

Doug sees community as a critical component to advancing research, so it’s important to him that the people in his lab take the time to build relationships with one another. “Ultimately, it is important that people leave my lab with strong scientific training and experience, however, equally valuable are well-developed softer skills including the ability to communicate effectively, think independently, and take initiative to solve problems. By working with others we gain respect for what they may uniquely offer and hopefully learn from through the value of different perspectives,” explains Doug.

Through helping lab members develop initiative and confidence in the lab, Doug is working to equip the next generation of scientists for success. “Possibly the greatest goal we can aspire to in research is to apply science for the benefit of mankind while at the same time enabling development of happy productive members of society that go confidently to do great things with pride and satisfaction.”

On the future of plant science

"It is an exciting time to be in the biological sciences. Biology holds the solutions to many modern-day and future challenges."

Agriculture is in Doug's blood

"I grew up on a farm. As a kid I used to show and judge livestock and also soil quality competitively, in addition to being interested in crops."

Leveling the playing field

"Reading biographies about famous scientists reminds us that most people are really not that different from you or me."

On the future of plant science

"It is an exciting time to be in the biological sciences. Biology holds the solutions to many modern-day and future challenges."

Agriculture is in Doug's blood

"I grew up on a farm. As a kid I used to show and judge livestock and also soil quality competitively, in addition to being interested in crops."

Leveling the playing field

"Reading biographies about famous scientists reminds us that most people are really not that different from you or me."

Get in touch with Douglas Allen

Research Team
Research Summary

The Allen laboratory uses isotopes combined with computational methods to assess plant growth and productivity at the molecular level that contribute to enhanced biomass production and value-added seed compositions.

Douglas Allen

USDA Research Scientist, Associate Member

Jennifer Arp

Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow

Sally Bailey

Biological Technician

Kevin Chu

Visiting Postdoctoral Associate

Kevin Foley

Laboratory Technician

Saba Gill

Postdoctoral Associate

Lauren Jenkins

Senior Laboratory Technician

Shrikaar Kambhampati

Postdoctoral Associate

Somnath Koley

Postdoctoral Associate

Thiya Mukherjee

Postdoctoral Associate

Trish Tully

Postdoctoral Associate

Stewart Morley

Postdoctoral Associate

Douglas Allen

USDA Research Scientist, Associate Member

Jennifer Arp

Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow

Sally Bailey

Biological Technician

Kevin Chu

Visiting Postdoctoral Associate

Kevin Foley

Laboratory Technician

Saba Gill

Postdoctoral Associate

Lauren Jenkins

Senior Laboratory Technician

Shrikaar Kambhampati

Postdoctoral Associate

Somnath Koley

Postdoctoral Associate

Thiya Mukherjee

Postdoctoral Associate

Trish Tully

Postdoctoral Associate

Stewart Morley

Postdoctoral Associate

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Doug’s research is dedicated to understanding the metabolic networks of crops to enhance biomass composition using experimental and computational methods. These investigations give mechanistic insight into plant metabolism, important for designing crops to meet future nutritional and chemical feedstock needs.

Plant leaves assimilate inorganic carbon with the energy from sunlight and export the carbon as sugars and amino acids to seeds. The seeds import the sugars and amino acids and convert them into protein, oil and carbohydrates that are economically valuable. Seeds represent an important supply of food, feed, and fiber for humans and animals. Recently, the pressures to develop “green” solutions to our resource needs has led to intensified crop research as plants can also be grown for energy or industrial chemical feedstocks. The oil obtained from plants serves as an energetically dense form of biomass and can be readily processed into biodiesel or used for generation of polymers, plastics, surfactants, detergents, and adhesives; that are currently petroleum-based.

The Allen lab is exploring photosynthetic carbon assimilation in C3 and C4 crops and the production of storage reserves in oilseeds that can supplant some of our non-renewable dependencies. Among the greatest challenges associated with enhancing plant productivity is improving our understanding of the metabolism that governs the assimilation of carbon and its conversion to storage reserves (i.e protein, oil, and carbohydrate) under diverse environmental conditions.

Through quantitative biochemical descriptions of the carbon, nitrogen, redox and energy flows the lab can study the response of the cell to genetic or environmental perturbations that result in a more “systems level” understanding of plants and provide a fundamental understanding of cellular metabolism that in turn informs gene-level efforts.

Specifically, the lab employs systems level techniques such as metabolic flux analysis that integrate computational model building with experimental data obtained from isotopic labeling investigations. Experiments involve measuring biomass composition and isotopically labeling and analyzing the redistribution of labeled carbon (13C/14C),  hydrogen (2H), or oxygen (17/18O) atoms using a combination of LC-MS/MS, GC/MS, NMR, GC/FID, scintillation counting and other biochemical techniques as necessary. The production of biomass and the distribution of label in final storage reserves is a direct result of the fluxes through different biochemical pathways. Therefore, the label measurements can be used within the context of a “retrobiosynthetic approach” computationally to establish fluxes from models of central metabolism. Together, the experiments and quantitative models describe, at a mechanistic level, the metabolic network activity and cellular response to environmental and/or genotypical perturbations.