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Danforth Center Announces Five New Investigators, New Director of ERAC Institute for Renewable Fuels

New hires bring significant expertise and grant funding to the region

 
PRLog - Oct. 7, 2011 - ST. LOUIS -- ST. LOUIS, MO – Expansion efforts at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center are progressing rapidly.  The Center’s President, Dr. James C. Carrington, recruited five new lead scientists, who will strengthen and diversify the Center’s work in next generation biofuels, computational biology and new technologies.  One of the new investigators will also serve as Director of the Enterprise Rent-A-Car (ERAC) Institute for Renewable Fuels at the Center.

The new investigators hail from prestigious organizations and universities including the Boyce Thompson Institute at Cornell University, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Oregon State University, the University of California San Diego and include one internal promotion.   The new investigators are recent recipients of $16 million in grant funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Energy (DOE), Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and others.

The new investigators were identified through a worldwide search for scientists who would further the Center’s mission to use plants to serve human needs, improve the environment and promote economic growth of the region.  “We are excited about the new areas of research that will be explored by the new investigators, who will each form groups of around 8-15 scientists.  The groups will significantly expand the Center’s technological capacity, particularly around computation, genomics and analytical technologies.

Dr. Thomas Brutnell will join the Danforth Center on January 1, 2012 from the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research at Cornell, and serve as Member and Director of the Enterprise Institute for Renewable Fuels.    Under his direction the Enterprise Institute will expand its focus to include grasses as a source of biomass for biofuels.   He and his group are using genetic, genomic and computationally intensive approaches in maize and other grasses to understand photosynthesis and light energy capture, leaf development, and the shade avoidance syndrome.  They are also developing transposon tagging systems in corn and other model grasses for gene discovery.

“I’m really excited to be moving to the Danforth Center as it is an excellent opportunity to expand the research at the Danforth Center into new and challenging areas.  I am very much aligned with the mission of the Center and will be striving for global food and energy security through improved crop varieties and new bioenergy grasses.  We will tap technological breakthroughs in DNA sequencing technology and computational biology to drive discovery and innovation that will contribute to achieving energy security both here and abroad.  With the new hires and existing strengths at the Danforth Center, we are poised do some truly exceptional science here in St. Louis,”  Brutnell said.

Dr. Todd Mockler joined the Center on August 15, 2011 as an Associate Member.  Mockler came from Oregon State University where he served as Associate Professor and member of the Center for Genome Research and Biocomputing. His research uses genomics and computational approaches to understand how plants function and respond to changes in the environment.  He and his group are studying the complex networks of interactions that control plant responses to stress (cold, salt, drought, heat), light and day length, and how these responses affect growth, yield and biomass production.  Dr. Mockler has also led efforts to study plants that are directly relevant to both food and next-generation biofuel crops.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Energy (DOE) recently awarded Dr. Mockler $1.2 million as part of a $510 million public private partnership aimed at  building a national biofuels industry that will reduce U.S. reliance on foreign oil.  Funds will support his research focused on developing methods to increase yield and improve the composition of bioenergy grasses using the model grass, Brachypodium distachyon.
 
Dr. James Umen joined the Center on August 1, 2011 as an Associate Member working in the Enterprise Rent-A-Car Institute for Renewable Fuels.  Umen comes to the Center from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies where he served as Assistant Professor, Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory.  His work is aimed at discovering fundamental principles governing photosynthetic cell biology and using these discoveries to aid the development of algae as a new source of biofuel and high value biomolecules. His research focuses on the cell biology of algal growth, proliferation, reproductive evolution, and development.  Chlamydomonas and Volvox are model species that have driven major progress in algal genetics and molecular biology, and are utilized by the Umen laboratory to investigate these areas.  

Umen is familiar to the St. Louis area having served as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Biology at Washington University previously.

Dr. Leslie Hicks was promoted to Assistant Member effective January 1, 2012 and will focus on technology development, the sustainable production of biofuels, and understanding the consequences of oxidative stress.  For the last five years she served as the Director of the Danforth Center’s Proteomics and Mass Spectrometry Facility, which provides critical services in proteomics, metabolomics and related analytical fields.   Her research program focuses on development and implementation of approaches for protein characterization including post-translational modifications, as well as the identification of bioactive peptides/proteins from plants.  Dr. Hicks earned her Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

“Mass spectrometry is an enabling technology that is absolutely necessary for cutting edge chemistry. Leslie’s expertise in this area and her leadership in establishing the Center’s facility have been critical to the rapid progress of our science,” Carrington said.

Dr. Dmitri Nusinow will join the Danforth Center as Assistant Member on March 1, 2012.  He earned his Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular  Biology from the University of California, San Francisco.  Dr. Nusinow is currently a postdoctoral fellow at UC San Diego, studying the control of plant growth by the circadian clock. He recently discovered a key complex that links the internal plant clock to growth.  Dr. Nusinow will maintain a focus on circadian control of important plant traits, and looks forward to developing collaborations with other groups working in model and crop plants at the Center.

About The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center
Founded in 1998, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is a not-for-profit research institute with a mission to improve the human condition through plant science. Research at the Danforth Center will feed the hungry and improve human health, preserve and renew the environment, and enhance the St. Louis region and Missouri as a world center for plant science. The Center’s work is funded through competitive grants and contract revenue from many sources, including the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Agency for International Development and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center invites you to visit its website, www.danforthcenter.org, featuring interactive information on the Center's scientists, news, public education outreach, RSS feeds and the “Roots & Shoots” blog help keep visitors up to date with Center’s current operations and areas of research.

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About The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center
Founded in 1998, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is a not-for-profit research institute with a mission to improve the human condition through plant science. Research at the Danforth Center will feed the hungry and improve human health, preserve and renew the environment, and enhance the St. Louis region and Missouri as a world center for plant science. The Center’s work is funded through competitive grants and contract revenue from many sources, including the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Agency for International Development and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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