Biodiversity owes its origin and continued viability to plants. In my laboratory we use experimental plant anatomy and physiology to explore the relationship between plant tissues, development, and ability to interact with their environment. Students are encouraged to develop their own research topics, and as a result a wide range of species are studied in the lab. We have recently made use of international field stations, local greenhouse space, laboratory growth chambers, and collaborations to study root biology in tropical wetland plants, nutrient uptake in coastal sand dunes and freshwater wetlands, water transport in elm, seeding establishment in strangling fig, and tissue-specific gene expression in garlic. Topics are studied at three levels: tissue patterns in the mature plant organ, development of those patterns, and their biological significance in terms of functional advantages or constraints to the plant.
As an example, my departmental colleague Dr. Ross Feldberg and I have been collaborating in the study of gene expression in the underground storage leaf of garlic (Allium sativum). We have found that alliin lyase, the enzyme required to produce pharmacological and flavor compounds characteristic of garlic, concentrates in bundle sheath cells of this C-3 plant. A possible functional advantage to this arrangement is that volatile antifungal agents can be generated in that part of the plant responsible for reproduction, exposed longest to underground predators, and most susceptible to microbial attack. We continue to study the origin, targeting, and fate of alliin lyase throughout the life history of garlic, a useful subject for defining how underground storage organs can interact with their environment.