Elizabeth A. Kellogg,

PhD

Member and Robert E. King Distinguished Investigator

Discovery is a Gift

Sometimes simple questions require complex answers. At Dr. Elizabeth “Toby” Kellogg’s lab at the Danforth Center, the team uses comparative biology to answer some of life’s most basic queries. 

“The basic question in my lab is ‘Is it the same or is it different?’” says Toby. “Remember that bit on Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the other? That’s what we do.”

Toby and her team use a wide array of high-tech, cutting-edge tools: DNA sequencing, the polymerase chain reaction, CRISPR, and advanced microscopy all feature prominently.

“Everything is done in a comparative context,” she explains. “We’re looking at the genes that control diversity, and we’re interested in how processes differ across species.” 

Those differences could hold the key to helping plants sequester more carbon, or yield more, or use resources more efficiently—all improvements that would help feed the world and preserve our planet.

Function Follows Form, Even on the Farm

Toby is especially interested in plant morphology–the study of biological forms–and its impact on crop development. She recalls a critical moment from early in her career, when a fellow scientist showed her a picture of a corn plant with a mutation in a single gene. Instead of the tall and skinny stalk she knew, it was short and bushy, with a staggering number of leaves.

“It was like a light bulb went off,” she says. “I’d been looking at plant morphology throughout my career, but the idea that we could find genes that controlled it was incredible.”

Today, Toby is interested in a range of plant characteristics, from seed shattering (dropping seeds upon ripening) to salt tolerance, to carbon fixation. In each case, she sees the vast implications of each simple improvement: things like like hunger prevention, improved human health, and environmental sustainability.

“We’re looking at things like what’s making particular wild plants adapt to particular environments, especially heat and drought,” she says. “Traits that could allow us to grow more food in more areas without using more water or fertilizer.”

The Challenges Ahead

As enthusiastic as she is about what can be accomplished at a place like the Danforth Center, Toby is equally clear-eyed about the hurdles along the way. 

“Plant blindness is real,” she says. “The majority of the U.S. population is not connected to the source of their food in a direct way. Because of that, most people aren’t aware of how much we depend on plants and plant research.”

Facing these circumstances, Toby says she’s most proud of her students and trainees. “Because they are the future of plant science. We’re going to need very bright people tracking these issues.”

On working in an innovation community

"I like thinking about it as a web of connections, starting with our native prairie out front, to the labs, to the greenhouses, and then out to the businesses at BRDG Park."

Favorite places in St. Louis

"The herbarium at the Missouri Botanical Garden is extremely good, and I’ve spent many happy afternoons in the library at Washington University."

On working in an innovation community

"I like thinking about it as a web of connections, starting with our native prairie out front, to the labs, to the greenhouses, and then out to the businesses at BRDG Park."

Favorite places in St. Louis

"The herbarium at the Missouri Botanical Garden is extremely good, and I’ve spent many happy afternoons in the library at Washington University."

Get in touch with Elizabeth A. Kellogg

Research Team
Research Summary

The Kellogg laboratory studies genomes, growth, and development of sorghum, maize, and their wild relatives, using biodiversity research to make ecosystems and agriculture more sustainable.

Elizabeth Kellogg

Member and Robert E. King Distinguished Investigator

Taylor AuBuchon

Senior Laboratory Technician

Bess Bookout

Laboratory Technician

David Goad

Visiting Graduate Student

Patrick Minx

Laboratory Technician

Kurt Petersen

Postdoctoral Associate

Yunqing Yu

Postdoctoral Associate

Elizabeth Kellogg

Member and Robert E. King Distinguished Investigator

Taylor AuBuchon

Senior Laboratory Technician

Bess Bookout

Laboratory Technician

David Goad

Visiting Graduate Student

Patrick Minx

Laboratory Technician

Kurt Petersen

Postdoctoral Associate

Yunqing Yu

Postdoctoral Associate

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Elizabeth has spent her career studying cereal crops and their wild relatives in the grass family, plants on which all of civilization depends. Her unique contribution has been to forge connections between scientists in the front lines of biodiversity research and those breaking new ground in genetic and genomic studies.

The Kellogg lab’s work identifies deep similarities among plants as apparently disparate as rice, wheat, maize, and the other cereals.  Because similarity and difference are two sides of the same coin, in the process they have also discovered genes that contribute to the diversity of the great cereals of the world.

Members of the Kellogg lab believes that food security is a human right, and that plant scientists have an obligation to contribute to feeding the growing global population.  This is central to the mission of the Center, to “feed the hungry and improve human health.” Cereal crops in the grass family – including rice, maize (corn), wheat, sorghum, barley, and oats – have fed civilizations for millennia, and are the center of our research.  These crops were selected by humans from an entire ecosystem of wild grasses, which dominate and more than ¼ of the land area of the earth. By studying how the wild plants grow, make seeds, and adapt to drought and floods, we can learn how to make more resilient crops.  Conversely, by studying cereal crops, we can predict how wild grasses may adapt to a warmer, drier climate. This aspect of our work reflects the second part of the Center’s mission, to “preserve and renew environment.” The third part of the mission is to “enhance the St. Louis region as a world center for plant science.”  As you can see in the descriptions of projects below, the lab is a small business supported by grant funding, much of which represents federal tax dollars brought home to Missouri. Like the other labs in the Center, we are an employer, a small business that keeps the economic engine of the city running.

Current projects in the Kellogg lab include:

  1. Adaptation and morphological evolution in the tribe Andropogoneae.  This project is supported by two NSF grants, one of which is producing genomes for as many members of the tribe as possible (see panandropogoneae.com), and the other of which is using those data to investigating evolution of floral and inflorescence structures.
  2. Evolution of grass abscission zones.  We have discovered that the mechanisms controlling how seeds fall off the plant are surprisingly diverse.  This poses mechanistic and evolutionary questions that we are pursuing in wild species and related crops.