Malia Gehan,

PhD

Assistant Member

Certified Plant Killer

“I can’t keep a plant alive. That’s why I like to work on plant stress.”

Malia Gehan, PhD, laughs as she explains that she was drawn to plants for their resilience — and the lessons we can learn from it.

“When people get too hot, we can take off our jackets. If we get too cold, we can put our jacket on. Plants can’t do that. And yet you find plants growing in some of the most extreme environments. How is that possible? If we understand how some plants manage it, we should be able to help other plants do it too.”

Given the role that agriculture can play in climate change and environmental sustainability, Malia’s work is critical for the future of our planet and our species.

Literally Eye Opening

“People have plant blindness,” explains Malia. “We do a lot of outreach for students in elementary school all the way up to college students. We ask them what their favorite plant is, and many people list, ‘decorative plants like flowers’.’ It’s surprising how few people make the connection between plants and food.”

To counteract plant blindness during outreach events, Malia and her team look for examples that young people are interested in. Projects aimed at life on Mars, for example, stimulate tremendous interest in agriculture. “Showing examples of growing lettuce on the International Space Station usually peaks interest. What’s happening here on Earth is the environment is getting more extreme. People studying plants in space are also studying plants in extreme environments.”

The Tech Behind the Science

Malia and her team focus on how plants respond to stressful conditions by using advanced imaging technologies that measure plant health. The tools range from basic cameras to hyperspectral models that yield details invisible to the naked eye.

“Your phone camera has three channels: red, blue and green. A hyperspectral camera has a thousand channels, each with a unique reflective sensitivity.”

That reflectance measurement helps researchers understand how temperature stress affects chlorophyll levels, for example, or induces subtle changes in development, all of which can be useful for developing crops that better tolerate stress. The Bellwether Growth chamber facility allows Malia’s lab to study and photograph thousands of plant samples over time in many different environments.

Facial Recognition for Plants

Malia is particularly proud of another part of her work: developing software and algorithms that analyze the same images produced by her team’s research.

“Because we were collecting all this data–millions of plant images–we had to find a way to analyze it. The software we needed didn’t exist, so we co-developed software with Noah Fahlgren’s group,” she says.

Malia and her team are developing tools like PlantCV as open-source software, so it can propel the efforts of other researchers. This type of shared academic technology can speed crop innovations that could improve the lives and health of people in developing nations and around the world.

About the Danforth Center’s reputation

As a new PI, it’s amazing. The Danforth Center has an awe-inspiring international reputation. When you’re talking about recruiting talent, it’s a great draw.

Favorite things about St. Louis

We love all the parks in St. Louis, as well as the museums. The fact that they’re all free is incredible—it makes education so accessible.

About the Danforth Center’s reputation

As a new PI, it’s amazing. The Danforth Center has an awe-inspiring international reputation. When you’re talking about recruiting talent, it’s a great draw.

Favorite things about St. Louis

We love all the parks in St. Louis, as well as the museums. The fact that they’re all free is incredible—it makes education so accessible.

Get in touch with Malia Gehan

Research Team
Research Summary

The Gehan laboratory develops high-throughput phenotyping approaches to study mechanisms of crop resilience under temperature stress.

Malia Gehan, PhD

Principal Investigator, Assistant Member

Elizabeth Castillo

Senior Laboratory Technician

Anna Casto

Postdoctoral Associate

Carlos Quillatupa Astete

Laboratory Assistant

Anastasia Shamin

Laboratory Assistant

Hudanyun Sheng

Computational Scientist

Jose Tovar

Research Scientist

Malia Gehan, PhD

Principal Investigator, Assistant Member

Elizabeth Castillo

Senior Laboratory Technician

Anna Casto

Postdoctoral Associate

Carlos Quillatupa Astete

Laboratory Assistant

Anastasia Shamin

Laboratory Assistant

Hudanyun Sheng

Computational Scientist

Jose Tovar

Research Scientist

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Improved Crop Resilience

Malia’s research develops high-throughput methods of phenotyping plants to identify natural variation in response to temperature stress and to learn about how plants interact with their environment.

The world population is expected to outpace agricultural productivity by the year 2050. To rise to this global challenge we need crops that are more nutritious and that produce more yield under increasingly variable climatic conditions. One approach to producing improved crops is to identify natural variation in both nutritional composition and abiotic stress response of plant populations. In particular, the Gehan lab focuses on mining natural variation for improved resistance to temperature stress, which will help to improve crop productivity, and move towards answering the basic question of how plants perceive temperature. Interactions of plant genotype and the environment (especially stressful environments) are dynamic and can produce a multitude of phenotypes, therefore the Gehan lab also focuses on improved methods of measuring plant phenotype.

Improved measurement of plant phenotypes

To measure natural variation in temperature stress resistance, we need non-destructive tools that can quickly and accurately measure a plant phenotype over time. Therefore, the Gehan Lab also focuses on developing new tools and computational methods for plant phenotyping. The Lab is particularly interested in developing low-cost and open-source tools for high-throughput phenotyping so that more researchers can have access to them.

Plant systems we focus on

The Gehan lab works on sorghum, and the model grass Setaria viridis because it is closely related to important food and bioenergy crops. The Gehan lab is also very excited to start work on Chenopodium quinoa, as a model system for plant stress resilience. Quinoa is delicious, nutritious, and varieties are reported to have high tolerance to diverse abiotic stresses. There is also quite a bit of phenotypic diversity in terms of color, architecture, and development, which makes it an interesting model for plant phenotyping.

Outreach

Outreach is an important component of the Gehan lab. We use phenotyping as a way of introducing students of all ages to plants and computer science. A key technology that has helped to make this possible are small, low-cost microcomputers, like the Raspberry Pi. The Gehan lab regularly uses Raspberry Pi computers and camera modules to image plants for research and we use the same set-ups in phenotyping workshops with students and teachers.