Answering Basic Biological Questions
With world population predicted to reach nine billion people by 2050, understanding the principles underlying agriculture is increasingly crucial. BTI’s research aims to speed the development of sustainable agriculture and healthier food production through research into basic biological questions. Guiding questions lead our faculty researchers to insights into what mechanisms plants use to grow, to defend themselves from disease and insects, to use water, and to react to stress.
BTI’s research has the potential not only to help increase the food supply, but also to enhance the nutritional value of foods in developing worlds, to reduce the need for fertilizers and pesticides, and to produce cheaper vaccines.
For more information, visit our faculty websites, our comprehensive list of publications, or view a listing of articles published by BTI scientists beginning with William Crocker in 1923 here 1923_2002.
Examples of what we study:
Information provided by model plants and organisms can offer insight into other plants and organisms, making models a centerpiece to BTI’s research and work. Learn more about the plants and organisms that inform the science in BTI laboratories.
Arbuscular mycorrhiza is a symbiotic association in which fungus penetrates the outer layer of the roots of vascular (or “higher”) plants. Mycorrhizae is the most prevalent symbiosis recorded. Because mycorrhizal plants are often more resistant to diseases and drought, they are helpful aids in the research of crops’ dependency on water. BTI’s Harrison laboratory focuses some of its research on arbuscular mycorrhizae.
Baculoviruses are large, rod-shaped DNA viruses first recorded in the 1500s during observed episodes of “wilting disease” in silk-producing insects. In the 1940s, baculoviruses were used on crop fields for pest management intervention. The potential for medical benefit from study of baculoviruses ranges from vaccines to cancer therapy, garnering major interest from the scientific community since the 1990s. At BTI, baculoviruses are the basis for some of the research in the Blissard laboratory.
Barrel Clover (Medicago truncatula)
Barrel Clover (Medicago truncatula) is a flowering, annual legume native to the Mediterranean. In Australia, barrel clover is an important crop used for feeding livestock. Because it has abundant seed production, self-fertilization, and symbioses with nitrogen-fixing soil bacteria and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, barrel clover is a staple model plant, and the focus of some of the research in BTI’s Harrison laboratory.
Chlamydomonas reinhardtii is a type of unicellular green algae that can be studied to provide insight into a variety of subjects from alternative energy sources to cancer therapy. C. reinhardtii’srelationship to light plays a large part in its role as a model plant, because it can grow in the dark, and without carbon, when illuminated. Study of C. reinhardtii can provide information how plant cells move, respond to light, and respond to nutritional changes, which makes it a subject of study at BTI. BTI’s Education Department’s BBEP Teacher workshops reference this algae in collaboration with research from the Stern laboratory.
Coffee (Coffea arabica)
Coffee is a beverage produced from the roasted and brewed seeds of a small shrub of the genus Coffeathat was first cultivated in southern Arabia. The caffeine in coffee serves as a natural seed protectant for the plant and a natural stimulant that is highly valued and widely traded for human consumption. Today, coffee production is vulnerable to an aggressive fungal leaf disease, known as la roya del café (coffee rust), and BTI researchers in the Mueller laboratory are working to produce data that will help breeders develop more resistant plants.
Cucumber (Cucumis sativus)
Cucumbers (Cucumis sativus) are a creeping vine native to Southeast Asia that produces elongated cylindrical fruit. In the same gourd family as watermelon, Cucurbitaceae, cucumber is an economically important crop valued for its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer benefits, and is a model system for sex determination studies, plant vascular biology, and biosynthesis of cucurbitacin and ‘fresh green’ odor. The genetic diversity of thousands of years of cucumber cultivation around the world is of interest to BTI’s Fei laboratory.
Green Foxtail (Setaria viridis)
Green Foxtail (Setaria viridis) is an annual grass, and an introduced species of noxious weed that grows in many urban and disturbed environments, like sidewalks and railroad tracks. Foxtail was first cultivated as a grass during the Stone Age in China, and was used at that time as a millet for cereal. Foxtail is of particular interest to the scientific community for the potential insight it can reveal into biofuel development and production, which makes it a subject of study at BTI. BTI researchers in the Stern and Van Eck laboratories use these model plants to understand plant functions.
Green Peach Aphid (Myzus persicae)
The green peach aphid (Myzus persicae) acts as a pest in peach trees, killing tissue and damaging leaves, while carrying viruses to major food crops. Though insecticides have been helpful in controlling the green peach aphid in the past, resistances have developed in the species, making it a focus of intense study aimed at understanding ways to control such a destructive pest and the plant viruses it transmits. The green peach aphid is the focus of much research in the Cilia and Jander laboratories.
The kiwifruit is an edible berry native to the mountains of southwest China. Produced by a woody vine in the genus Actinidia, kiwi has long been called “the King of fruits” for its high content of vitamin C, minerals, dietary fiber and other health-beneficial metabolites. It is an important model plant of interest to BTI’s Fei laboratory for studies of ploidy alteration, evolution, and metabolic accumulation of vitamin C, carotenoids and flavonoids.
The Model Organism C. elegans
The nematode Caenorhabditis elegans is one of the most important model organisms for biomedical research, because of its biological tractability and because many of its physiological pathways show strong analogies to corresponding pathways in humans. Research in the Schroeder laboratory aims to identify small molecules from C. elegans that play important roles in conserved signaling pathways that regulate lifespan, development, and metabolism.
N. benthamiana is a close relative of tobacco, indigenous to Australia, where it was used for a time as a stimulant. The delicate leaves of N. benthamiana, paired with its susceptibility to a host of plant pathogens, make it an excellent candidate for study of ethylene synthesis and virology. At BTI, N. benthamiana is studied in the Klessig and Martin laboratories.
Orange (Citrus sinensis)
Citrus greening disease, or huanglongbing (HLB), results in unmarketable bitter green fruit before killing the trees. The bacteria implicated in causing HLB, C. Liberibacter asiaticus, has never been cultured. The insect that spreads it, the Asian citrus psyllid, is nearly impossible to spot with the naked eye. It takes 18 to 36 months before a tree shows signs of infection, and by then it is too late. Potential solutions for this blight are being pioneered in the Cilia laboratory.
P. syringae is a plant pathogen capable of infecting a number of plant species. P. syringae was first isolated from the lilac plant (Syringa vulgaris), for which it was named. Because there is availability of sequences for three P. syringae strains, and because it commonly infects heavily researched plants like Arabadopsis thaliana, Nicotiana benthamiana, and Solanum lycopersicum, P. syringae is a great model for plant-pathogen interactions. At BTI, P. syringae is researched in the Martin laboratory.
Thale Cress (Arabidopsis thaliana)
Thale cress is a flowering, winter annual native to Europe, Asia, and Africa, and the first plant to have its genome fully sequenced. The study of thale cress can provide insight into flower development and light sensing in plants, making it an important model plant studied in the Apel, Catala, Jander, Klessig, Harrison, Martin, Mueller, and Richards laboratories.