My research interests integrate classical and molecular genetics with biochemical, metabolomic and computational approaches to study the biosynthetic and regulatory genetic networks of metabolic traits, to increase both the fundamental knowledge of metabolism and to use that knowledge for practical applications.
I. Understanding the genetic network of plant cuticle lipids and their protective properties against environmental stresses: My group is using the stigmatic silks of maize as the model system to dissect the genetic and metabolic networks responsible for the synthesis of plant cuticle lipids, which are derived from fatty acids and accumulate on the aerial surfaces of plants. We are using the cuticle lipid metabolome as the model to study how the organism adapts and protects plant surfaces from environmental stresses. This work aims to reveal unique mechanisms that produce the distinctive surface chemistries that plants utilize to gain protection from environmental stresses. Based on the chemical similarity of surface lipid constituents to components of petroleum, this work has potential applications in bioengineering these networks to produce advance biofuels in heterologous systems (e.g. algae). Project website
II. Harnessing natural metabolic pathways for the production of biorenewable compounds: The ISU-based, NSF-funded Center for Biorenewable Chemicals (CBiRC) is leading the emerging bio-based chemical field by developing a flexible platform that combines biological and chemical catalysis to produce precursors for chemicals. Within the context of CBiRC, we are addressing how the fatty acid biosynthetic pathway can be harnessed in genetically tractable microbes to produce a variety of precursors for the emerging biorenewable chemicals industry. In a broader context, we are employing forward genetic approaches to study the regulation of fatty acid synthesis, and we are particularly interested in the “non-obvious” genetic determinants, and variants thereof, that determine fatty acid production.