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Iron Homeostasis in Plants


Iron is one of the most important and most problematic of all the micronutrients used by living organisms. Many of the mechanisms involved in plant iron homeostasis are not well understood, and this is a major obstacle to devising approaches for biofortification of staple foods with iron. Biofortification refers to the genetic engineering of staple crops to accumulate additional bioavailable iron in edible parts; it is widely regarded as a sustainable means of improving the iron nutrition of the 2-3 billion people worldwide whose inadequate diet causes iron deficiency anemia.

My group has a strong interest in the processes by which plants move iron and other transition metals within their above ground parts. We have recently shown that members of the Yellow Stripe Like (YSL) family of transporters are required for normal iron, zinc, and copper loading into both vegetative and reproductive tissues. In future, my group will continue to perform experiments that will elucidate the mechanisms that plants use to achieve correct distribution of iron and other metals into above ground organs and seeds. We will also pursue experiments that will elucidate the function(s) of additional YSL family members both at the biochemical and whole plant physiological levels.

Production of Taxol™ (Paclitaxel) in Plant Cell Cultures


Paclitaxel is a valuable pharmaceutical compound currently used primarily for treatment of cancer, but which has also been found to reduce major adverse cardiac events when coated onto coronary stents. It is also being tested in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders characterized by altered microtubule networks. The biosynthesis of paclitaxel is complex, and until recently, molecular analysis of the system has been limited to work on the biosynthetic genes themselves.

The UMass Taxol™ consortium (Sue Roberts, Chemical Engineering; Elsbeth Walker, Biology; and Jennifer Normanly, BMB) applies molecular biology approaches to characterizing and manipulating Taxus metabolism for production of paclitaxel (Taxol™). Our long term goal is to understand the gene networks that plant cells use to produce chemicals that are useful as pharmaceuticals. With this knowledge, we will be able to make drugs that are cheaper, and more environmentally friendly, and more abundantly available.

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