Ivan Baxter,

PhD

Associate Member

The Power of Plants

Ivan was at a crossroads in graduate school.

He considered leaving altogether. Then, he came across an article about trees.

The article looked at using transgenic trees to remove toxins from the environment. The idea of using plants to help heal the environment, called phytoremediation, was inspiring to him. “The simplicity of it resonated with me. Just by making a small genetic modification, you could plant trees and help clean up the environment without having to dig anything up or process it,” explains Ivan.

Soon after, Ivan switched labs and started his journey in plant science.

Millions of Possibilities

Ivan’s lab studies how plants adapt to different environmental conditions: taking up elements like iron, zinc, calcium, and magnesium. “It’s an incredibly complex system that involves the genetics of the plant and the environment that it grows in, each of which can have millions of possibilities,” explains Ivan.

When the Bellwether Phenotyping Facility opened, it was a natural complement to the work Ivan’s lab was doing, enabling him to expand the scope of his research to look at the related questions of how plants use water to grow. “The facility allows us to control environmental variables tightly and monitor how plants change over time, both of which can be incredibly hard to do.”

Sustainably Producing Nutritious Food

As we face new environmental challenges and our population continues to grow, understanding how plants adapt to their environment is critical to sustainably producing more food. With Ivan’s research, it could become possible to grow crops under more extreme conditions with fewer inputs.

Ivan’s work could also impact human health. By understanding how plants absorb elements, Ivan and his lab could produce crops that grow under extreme weather conditions while also maintaining or improving nutritional content. “Understanding how plants take up elements will allow us to understand how life works while also being able to improve plant, animal, and human nutrition,” explains Ivan.

Creating Community for Plant Scientists

In addition to his research, Ivan is passionate about creating a more inclusive plant science community that supports emerging scientists. In 2017, he co-created Taproot, a podcast that explores the working world and publication process of real-life plant scientists. “It’s a new way to contribute to the plant science community. It’s an important project to me because we’ve had conversations that people have found really useful in their science careers.”

For Ivan, the people that make up his lab are just as important as the work they are doing: “We’ve provided opportunities for some fantastic people to do great science. I’m very proud of that.”

On creating opportunity in the scientific community

"I wanted to provide a new place for plant scientists to publish their work, so I started a journal, Plant Direct."

Why he's proud of his lab members

"I'm proud of the way my lab has harnessed new technologies to begin to understand how one small part of the world works."

A passion for podcasting

"My podcast, Taproot, has over 45,000 downloads."

On creating opportunity in the scientific community

"I wanted to provide a new place for plant scientists to publish their work, so I started a journal, Plant Direct."

Why he's proud of his lab members

"I'm proud of the way my lab has harnessed new technologies to begin to understand how one small part of the world works."

A passion for podcasting

"My podcast, Taproot, has over 45,000 downloads."

Get in touch with Ivan Baxter

Research Team
Research Summary

The Baxter laboratory uses advanced technologies to understand the diverse ways plant genetics interacts with the environment to enable growth.

Ivan Baxter

Principal Investigator

Jennifer Barrett

Administrative Laboratory Manager

Michelle Cho

Rotating Graduate Student WU

Renee Dale

Postdoctoral Associate

Allen Hubbard

Postdoctoral Associate

Jennifer Jaros

Laboratory Technician

Hui Jiang

Senior Research Associate

Melissa Jurkowski

Laboratory Assistant

Xiaoping Li

Laboratory Technician

Collin Luebbert

Computational Scientist

Timothy Parker

Computational Scientist

Madison Pope

Lab Assistant

Lauren Whitt

Graduate Student

Greg Ziegler

Research Manager

Ivan Baxter

Principal Investigator

Jennifer Barrett

Administrative Laboratory Manager

Michelle Cho

Rotating Graduate Student WU

Renee Dale

Postdoctoral Associate

Allen Hubbard

Postdoctoral Associate

Jennifer Jaros

Laboratory Technician

Hui Jiang

Senior Research Associate

Melissa Jurkowski

Laboratory Assistant

Xiaoping Li

Laboratory Technician

Collin Luebbert

Computational Scientist

Timothy Parker

Computational Scientist

Madison Pope

Lab Assistant

Lauren Whitt

Graduate Student

Greg Ziegler

Research Manager

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The Baxter lab focuses on understanding how interactions between the complex genetics of plants and the diverse environments in which they grow lead to phenotypic outcomes. The Baxter lab takes three complementary approaches to attack this challenge: ionomics, image-based phenotyping, and quantitative genetics and bioinformatics.

Element accumulation in plant tissues reflects the environmental processes that make elements available to plants and the plant’s ability to uptake, transport, and sequester those elements. Understanding how plants regulate this elemental composition is critical for agriculture, the environment, and human health. For example, sustainably meeting the increasing food and biofuel demands of the planet will require growing crops with fewer inputs, such as the primary macronutrients phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). Phosphorus in fertilizer is non-renewable, too expensive for subsistence farmers, and inefficiently utilized by crops, leading to runoff and severe downstream ecological consequences. In addition, plants comprise the major portion of the human diet, and improving their elemental nutrient content can greatly affect human health. However, efforts directed at a single element can have unforeseen deleterious effects. For example, limiting iron (Fe) or P input can lead to increased accumulation of the toxic elements cadmium (Cd) and arsenic (As). To study these complex interactions, the Baxter lab uses high-throughput elemental profiling, or ionomics. We analyze the levels of 20 different elements in 1700+ samples per week using ICP-MS to study genetic populations grown in different environments.

A plant’s response to a changing environment can differ based on the stage of growth when the change is detected. In order to understand the genetic underpinnings of these temporal changes, the Baxter lab uses high-throughput phenotyping, principally the Bellwether Foundation Phenotyping Facility. We utilize the ability of the facility to precisely weigh and water >1100 plants while collecting daily images to study the effects of drought on important C4 grasses (corn, sorghum and the model grass Setaria). We use the PlantCV software, which we helped to develop, to extract a variety of traits from the images.

To make sense of all the data coming from the ionomics and phenotyping platforms, we use a combination of quantitative genetics and bioinformatics. Quantitative genetics is a statistical technique that is used to link phenotypic variation with one or more (usually many more) loci segregating in a population. We use many approaches and software packages to identify loci associated with the traits we are interested in. We also developed Zbrowse, software that allows the visualization of quantitative genetics results. Before we can understand the gene-by-environment interactions that underlie the traits we study, we need to be able to identify the genes and alleles involved. We are working on several bioinformatic tools to help sift through quantitative genetics results to identify candidate genes for further study.

To accomplish these projects, the Baxter lab comprises technicians, programmers, data scientists, graduate students, and postdocs (people can wear several of those hats at the same time). We collaborate with labs both here at the Danforth Center and worldwide on a variety of projects. To learn more, see our lab webpage. Graduate students can join the lab through the Division of Plant Sciences at Mizzou and the Plant and Molecular Biology and Computational and Systems Biology programs at WashU. Those interested in postdoctoral positions should contact Ivan directly; all other positions are advertised on the Danforth Center careers page when available.