Stomata Molecular Switches and the Future of Agriculture with Dr. Sixue Chen

Stomata Molecular Switches and the Future of Agriculture with Dr. Sixue Chen

By Rosie Kereston
UF Genetics Institute

Dr. Sixue Chen, professor in the Department of Biology and faculty director of the UF | ICBR Proteomics and Mass Spectrometry core, has dedicated his research to improving the future of agriculture and global food security.

“I have always wanted to do something useful for other people. That keeps me going. Every day, I ask myself how I can make a positive difference in the lives of as many people as possible. That’s why I love my job- it is a perfect job to do that.”

At the start of his academic journey, Dr. Chen was not that interested in plants. He said that, like most undergraduates nowadays, he wanted to dedicate himself to medical school to save human lives. As he learned more about plant biology, however, he was amazed at plants’ resilience and ability to thrive in a variety of environmental conditions. He felt driven to understand and improve them for agricultural purposes and the good of others.

“Growing up, we didn’t have enough food. I thought maybe with my research on plants, I could help others who are in the same situation that I was in… I realized I could do something really worthwhile with them.”

A common ice plant in a growth chamber used in Dr. Chen’s research. It is currently experiencing drought conditions to test its ability to adapt to environmental changes.

Dr. Chen’s drive to improve food security for future generations has developed into a passion for investigating plant genetics and proteomics. Understanding how plants adapt under stressful conditions on a molecular level and how to improve plants’ natural defenses could lead to major positive results for agriculture all over the world.

His research today focuses on the molecular pathways within plants and the isolation of certain molecular switches that help them adapt to rapidly changing environmental conditions, such as drought or fighting off microbial pathogens. These areas of focus have a notable factor in common: the plants’ stomata, the barrier between the intercellular environment of the plant and its external environment.

During photosynthesis, plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen and water vapor. This gaseous exchange occurs through important microscopic pores in the plants’ epidermis, known as stomata.

Stomata have existed as long as land-based, photosynthesizing plants have existed- about 457 million years. Stomata function is critical to the survival and development of plants, which allows them to interact with and respond to environmental stimuli.

Each stoma is formed by a pair of guard cells specialized in regulating the aperture of the pore. Using molecular signaling within the plant, the pores can be instructed to open or close to maintain the plant’s internal homeostasis, protect against external threats, and manage the rate of photosynthesis.

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Dr. Sixue Chen is Faculty Director of UF | ICBR Proteomics & Mass Spectrometry