As a student in Bordeaux, France, Ana Paula Alonso pursued medicine but became bored by the rote memorization. Research fascinated her, however, especially studies about biochemical pathways and how they worked together in living systems.
While looking for graduate research funding, she noticed a fellowship opportunity in plant biochemistry. She applied, hoping to transfer to plants what she’d learned about bacterial metabolism from her medical courses in pharmacology. She got the fellowship and started working in a plant laboratory at the Victor Segalen Bordeaux 2 University in France. “I started doing my Ph.D. studying fundamental science about plant metabolism," Alonso says. Today, Alonso is an assistant professor at Ohio State University in Columbus. "I’m interested in the applications that plants can have in our everyday lives," she says.
The biochemical pathways of plants offer promise in solving some of the problems the world faces, such as feeding a growing population, producing cost-effective medicines, and generating renewable sources of fuel. Researchers in plant metabolism harness the tools of molecular biology, chemistry, and bioinformatics to elucidate these complex networks and apply them in useful, new ways. Researchers with the right combination of skills can find employment opportunities in academia, nonprofit research institutes, government, and industry.
Technology has expanded the list of questions that plant researchers can address. In the past, researchers would have painstakingly isolated and purified a protein from a plant, sequenced it, then worked backward to the cloning of individual genes, says Vincenzo De Luca of Brock University in St. Catharines, Canada. “Today, we’ve virtually eliminated the need to purify proteins. There’s a huge amount of sequencing going on.” Now researchers can mine public databases for genes of interest and then test the functions of those genes by inserting them into microorganisms or plants. Tools such as RNA interference and virus-induced gene silencing allow researchers to turn off those genes and see which chemicals accumulate. This in turn makes it possible to efficiently harness plant genes to produce potentially useful natural products.
The publication of the genome of Arabidopsis thaliana, a small flowering plant that serves as a model system for plant research, marked a shift for plant research and prompted Wolfram Weckwerth to change fields. He had studied the biosynthesis of peptide antibiotics in fungi for his Ph.D. at the Technical University of Berlin but decided to move into the then-emerging field of plant metabolomics, studying the functions of networks of plant genes. Advances in mass spectrometry allow scientists to analyze the wealth of natural products found in plants and connect them with genes.
Weckwerth moved to the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology in Potsdam, Germany, in 2000, supported by a short-term research fellowship until a postdoctoral position opened up. In 2008, he became a professor and head of the department of molecular systems biology at the University of Vienna. His laboratory now hosts 25 researchers using molecular biology, mass spectrometry, and bioinformatics to compare products from plants grown in greenhouses under highly controlled conditions to those grown in natural environments. They work to understand how environmental stressors such as drought and temperature changes affect growth rates and chemical production in plants. The goal is to figure out which genes help plants adapt to environmental conditions.
Researchers in Weckwerth's group "need strong skills in analytical chemistry, mass spectrometry, chromatography, and they need to be interested in this type of molecular biology,” he says. They also need a big-picture view of the organism to link macro-level observations with their molecular results. Experience in computational biology is preferred.
Doreen Ware, a member of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service (USDA ARS) who works at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, uses those same skills to link plant genotypes and phenotypes. Her group works primarily on grass species, looking for combinations of genes that could make certain grasses more tolerant to a wide range of climate and water availability conditions. Ware's laboratory models can also be applied to agriculturally important crops such as corn or soybeans.
Plant metabolic research has applications in agriculture, pharmaceuticals, and renewable energy, so researchers with knowledge of plants and quantitative biology skills can find job opportunities in several sectors. Like most basic research positions, plant-research positions within academia and federal research labs are highly competitive. Getting a position with USDA ARS, for example, is similar in competitiveness to obtaining an intramural research position at the National Institutes of Health, Ware says. However, for those who do obtain such positions, the U.S. government's interest in biofuels has made funding easier to obtain. For example, the Department of Energy (DOE) teamed up with USDA in 2006 to fund basic plant research through the Plant Feedstocks Genomics for Bioenergy program. Some plant researchers are also funded through DOE's Office of Basic Energy Sciences. Such sources supplement funding from the National Science Foundation and USDA, says Sam Wang, who holds a joint appointment at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, a nonprofit research center, which is also in St. Louis.
Alonso considered a move to industry—Monsanto funded her postdoctoral research at Michigan State University—but she craved the opportunity to work with students, so instead she pursued an academic career. Alonso is using molecular labeling to trace the pathways that plants use to produce molecules, information that can help researchers develop corn that produces more oil. She is also studying Lesquerella fendleri, a plant that produces hydroxy fatty acids that are useful as lubricants. Planting L. fendleri can help farmers increase the productivity of their land and their income, she adds. L. fendleri grows in early spring, before a farmer might plant crops such as corn or soybeans, and the plant can replenish soil nutrients.
Industry may offer more opportunities for job seekers than academia does. “Really well-trained metabolic biochemists are in short supply,” Wang says. Although moving to industry requires picking up skills and experience that often aren’t part of graduate school or an academic postdoc, plant research offers more opportunities than some other fields to gain industry exposure during academic training.
Because collaboration between academia and industry is common, this additional industry exposure may arise seamlessly as a part of the academic training process. Though he grew up in Shanghai, China, Jianxin (John) Chen did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he carried out biotechnology research and closely observed Israel's agriculture industry. He worked with De Luca for 4 years as a postdoc, gaining experience in biochemistry to add to his earlier focus on cell biology and molecular cloning. His skills, exposure to industry, and international experience helped him land his current position as cell biology project manager in the California division of Groupe Limagrain, a French agricultural science company. He recently coordinated a project that allowed his company to develop plants with homogeneous genetic traits that will produce predictable phenotypes when crossbred with other plants. “A 100% pure biochemist couldn’t do the job I’m doing,” Chen says.
Nonprofit research institutions also provide research opportunities—and stable jobs—for plant scientists. Academic positions are competitive in Japan, says Jun Murata, who moved back there, his native country, after postdoctoral work with De Luca in Canada. He took an independent research position at a nonprofit research institute—the Suntory Foundation for Life Sciences in Osaka, Japan—that allows him to continue his research on chemical communication between plants and bacteria and fungi in the surrounding soil.
Nonprofit research institutes such as the Danforth Center offer similar opportunities for U.S. plant scientists. Founded in 1998 with support from the Monsanto Fund and tax credits from the State of Missouri, the Danforth Center employs more than 100 scientists, the majority with ties to local universities. The center also hosts three labs staffed with USDA researchers. Doug Allen, a bioengineer with USDA ARS based at the Danforth Center, says that positions like his are beneficial because they offer immediate access to resources and collaborations with researchers in both organizations.
With their ability to utilize sunlight, carbon dioxide, water, and a dash of trace nutrients to produce food and purify air, plants are striking from an engineering standpoint, Allen says. “Plants offer a lot at a relatively cheap cost.” The potential to push plants even further is a grand challenge and offers opportunities for researchers with new ideas, he adds. “It’s what makes me excited about the types of work that I do.”
Sarah Webb writes about science, health, and technology from Brooklyn, New York.