Sona Pandey,

PhD

Associate Member

The World Beneath a Microscope

When Sona was a child, her mother explained to her that a cup of yogurt contains millions of living organisms called microbes.

“I was in complete disbelief that we were eating something that had bugs in it,” says Sona. Her mother explained that these bugs were so small that you needed a microscope to see them. “That was a profound moment in my life, understanding that there are things in the world that are vital to our existence, but that you cannot see without the assistance of something else.” Throughout Sona’s childhood, her parents and some phenomenal teachers encouraged her to be curious and ask questions, and soon she became fascinated with science.

A New Frontier

Chemistry was Sona’s favorite subject, but as she was getting ready to start her master’s degree, a new course was coming out that was the first of its kind in India: biotechnology. “It was a very cross-disciplinary program. I got to take classes in medical sciences, botany, chemistry, zoology. It was all very exciting,” she explains. After successfully competing for fellowships and entrance examinations for PhD programs, when she met her PhD advisor, she knew that plant science was the right fit: “He studied signaling and used biochemistry and molecular biology to understand how plants perceive light and how they respond to it. His science was interesting, but it was his approach to teaching science and mentoring students that made it very easy for me to decide what I wanted to do.”

Understanding How Plants Sense their Surroundings

Today, Sona’s lab is interested in understanding how plants sense changes in their environment, like light, temperature, humidity and even microbes. As humans, we can sense that it is too cold outside and walk indoors where it is more comfortable. Plants don’t have that ability, so they have to modify what they are going to do within the environment. “The question my lab is asking is how are plants sensing a change in their surroundings and then what are some of the first changes that take place to respond?” To do this, Sona’s lab specifically looks at the proteins involved in sensing environmental changes, called G proteins. Her lab studies the signaling mechanisms of G proteins , and how that ultimately affects plant growth and development.

As our environment changes and the population continues to grow, Sona’s work is becoming even more critical to feeding the world. In order to understand how a plant responds to changing environmental conditions like high temperatures, drought, or low nutrient availability, we need to know what is happening within the plant. Once we understand that, then we can improve the plants to be able to respond better to stress. In the future, this could mean that we may be able to grow crops in conditions that were previously uninhabitable. Not only could Sona’s research help plants respond to stress, it could also result in improved yield under normal conditions. “Our goal will always be to make plants survive better with lower inputs and under stressful conditions, while still maintaining or improving yield,” explains Sona.

Inspiring More People to Ask Questions

In addition to her research, Sona is passionate about fostering the next generation of scientists. For the past eight years, she has helped lead our Research Experience for Undergraduates internship program, which creates hands-on scientific opportunities for nearly twenty students from across the country each year. “Whenever I see that I can make even a small change in someone’s perspective to pursue science, it gives me a lot of satisfaction.” By investigating her own scientific questions and inspiring students to ask their own, Sona is working to improve the future of our planet through the power of plants.

On the importance of plants

"Plants deserve more attention. They are food, fuel, clothes and medicine. Plants are everything, really."

Sona’s hometown is Varanasi, India

"It is one of the oldest cities in the world."

On her hidden talents

"I am trained in Indian classical music. At one point, I thought I might pursue it as a career."

On the importance of plants

"Plants deserve more attention. They are food, fuel, clothes and medicine. Plants are everything, really."

Sona’s hometown is Varanasi, India

"It is one of the oldest cities in the world."

On her hidden talents

"I am trained in Indian classical music. At one point, I thought I might pursue it as a career."

Get in touch with Sona Pandey

Research Team
Research Summary

The Pandey laboratory uses molecular, biochemical, and functional studies to understand the mechanisms of stress tolerance and yield improvement in plants by heterotrimeric G-proteins.

Sona Pandey

Principal Investigator, Associate Member

Nikita Bhatnagar

Postdoctoral Associate

Audrey Dodds

Chien Ha

Postdoctoral Associate

Huong Nguyen

Lab Technician

Sona Pandey

Principal Investigator, Associate Member

Nikita Bhatnagar

Postdoctoral Associate

Audrey Dodds

Chien Ha

Postdoctoral Associate

Huong Nguyen

Lab Technician

The environment, human population, food habits and agricultural practices are all changing in an unprecedented manner. To sustain the growing human population we face the unique challenge of improving plant yields with lower input, under drier, hotter and less predictable environmental conditions. The overarching goal of research in the Pandey Lab is to discern how plants sense and respond to various environmental stresses and optimize their growth and development to result in improved productivity.

We focus on a class of conserved signaling proteins, the heterotrimeric G-proteins (G-proteins) which modulate developmental and signaling pathways in all eukaryotes, and are known to be key regulators of stress responses and yield in plants. Our current research integrates three interrelated clusters: mechanistic, evolutionary-developmental, and applied; all geared towards understanding, in exquisite details, the roles G-proteins play in defining the plants growth, development and productivity in constantly changing environment.

Mechanistic Cluster: Uncovering the mechanistic details of the plants’ response to environmental stresses

G-proteins are one of the core modules of the perception machinery of plants, both for external signals and for endogenous cues. However, the precise mechanisms of how this module is activated and the identity of their cognate receptors and effectors are poorly understood.

A deeper understanding of these aspects of G-protein signaling mechanisms is central to realizing their full potential for future engineering of plants. We work on pathways such as nodule formation in soybeans and stress/hormonal signaling pathways in Arabidopsis to elucidate the underlying details of G-protein signaling in plants. The approaches we use range for structure-function analysis and biochemistry of individual proteins, molecular genetic analysis of underlying pathways, and large-scale transcriptomics and proteomics analysis to gain system-wide information, all driven by specific questions being asked.  

Evolutionary-Development Cluster: System plasticity in plants

Plants exhibit an amazing degree of plasticity when challenged with unfavorable conditions. Some of our previous work and of others’ suggests that G-proteins are key regulators of this plasticity. G-proteins have evolved to utilize the same core components to regulate multiple plant processes potentially by rewiring of the extant signaling networks. In addition, some of the network components are specific to different plant lineages. This results in distinct phenotypes when comparing different plant species. We are focusing on a comparative Evo-Devo analysis, with different plant species including P. patens (moss), Arabidopsis, Camelina, soybeans, Brachypodium and Setaria to determine the cause-effect relationships between G-protein function and regulation of development in different plant lineages.

Application Cluster: Improving Biomass and Productivity by modulation of signaling pathways at the intersection of growth and stress response

Increasing yield of crop plants, while reducing input and improving stress tolerance, is the ultimate goal of most plant science research. Some of the G-protein components are key target for improving plant yield under stressed condition. Using Camelina and soybean as models, we determine the direct effects of G-proteins on yield in laboratory and field settings.