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Spotlight on Plant Circadian Networks

  • Title: Assistant Professor, Molecular Biosciences, Rutgers University
  • Education: PhD, Dartmouth College, 2003
  • Recommended by: Joachim Messing

Todd Michael owes a lot to his seventh-grade science teacher. That year, Michael had to create a leaf collection report of the leaves from various trees — maple, oak, and willow, to name a few — found in his neighborhood. “For the first time in my life, I realized all these different trees are trees, but they all have different shaped leaves, and the trees all different sizes,” he recalls. Once he learned about DNA, he made the connection that all those maples had similar manuals that directed them on how to make leaves and how tall to grow. Today, Michael studies how those genomic instructions are modulated by the environment. “My real main interest is … understanding how a genome is put together so that you get an organism at the end,” he says.

In particular, Michael studies the regulation of plant circadian networks. “I’ve been most interested in finding out how, at the level of transcription, the different pathways and networks are controlled by the circadian clock and how that interacts with light and temperature cycles,” he says. In rice and poplar, Michael is conducting time-courses of how these plants react to circadian, diurnal, and/or temperature cycles by assaying them with microarrays. He is also involved in the papaya genome sequencing effort, which Michael hopes will give him insight into the circadian rhythms of tropical plants, as well as the Brachiopodium brachium sequencing effort, which is a potential source of biofuel and a model for grasses.

With all these projects — microarrays, sequencing, and biofuels — Michael has plenty of ideas and plans for his new lab at Rutgers University. “It’s been a really exciting time for me,” says Michael. “I’m soon to set up my lab in a time when [understanding genomes] is actually exactly what the tools and the biology is focused on. I’m excited about it and I guess that’s why I do what I do.”

Looking ahead

Michael hopes biologists will soon be able to figure out, from the comfort of a computer chair, how all the parts of a genome fit together to make an organism. “It would be great in five years, 10 years, to be able to, in silico in some way, sequence that genome, and with all the available genomic resources, really say something biologically significant about the life cycle, about the biology,” he says.

Publications of note

While a graduate student, Michael assayed more than 100 different Arabidopsis thaliana accessions from all over the world to study their circadian clock’s natural variations. By looking at leaf movements regulated by the circadian clock, he and his colleagues could determine differences in period, phase, and amplitude between the accessions.

Michael and his colleagues hypothesize that the target of evolution is the time it takes the plant to go through one circadian cycle — often 24 hours — rather than phase or amplitude, since phase variations correlate with day length at the different latitudes the accessions came from. “We hypothesize that by having the period change, it would confer the ability to the plant to organize all its biology at the right time of day under different photoperiods. Because that’s the important thing for a plant, especially Arabidopsis,” he says. This work led to a paper in Science, published in November 2003.

And the Nobel goes to...

“I think that I would want to win the Nobel Prize in peace for developing plants — a way of growing plants — so we can utilize the resources that we have here on Earth to live a better life,” says Michael.

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