Understanding how plants regulate element composition of tissues is critical for agriculture, the environment, and human health. 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)
. P in fertilizer
is non-renewable, too expensive for subsistence farmers, and inefficiently utilized by crops, leading to runoff and severe downstream ecological consequences. 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 can lead to increased accumulation of the toxic elements cadmium (Cd) and arsenic (As).
The Baxter lab is interested in understanding how plants regulate the mobilization, uptake, translocation, and storage of elements in different environments. They are focusing their efforts on the seeds of corn
, the two most commonly grown crops in the United States. The seeds are important not only as the component of the plant that gets used for food, but also as a summary tissue of many physiological processes that are important for plant growth. They also study model systems to understand basic processes and apply this knowledge to the crop plants.
The focus of the lab's attempts to study this question is ionomics
. They analyze the elemental content of 1700+ samples per week using ICP-MS
using this high throughput to study structured genetic populations grown in different environments. When they combine this data with cutting-edge statistical and bioinformatics methodologies, they are able to identify genes and Gene X Environment interactions which are important for elemental accumulation in plants.