Providing training in the use of plants, mosses, algae, and photosynthetic prokaryotes as experimental organisms to address fundamental biological questions.
Plants are remarkable organisms, and these are exciting times in which to study their unique biology. Plant biology is moving into a new phase, fueled by genomics and the expansion of experimental tools and resources. Unprecedented opportunities exist at Washington University to pursue research questions and training in plant genetics, biochemistry, cell biology, development, molecular evolution, physiology, and epigenetics. The faculty and Ph.D. Program in Plant Biology at Washington University enjoy a strong reputation in all of these disciplines.
Research and Training Philosophy
The graduate Plant Biology Program is designed for students seeking a Ph.D. degree. Students receive detailed classroom and research training in plant biology but also learn about other leading experimental models. This breadth stems from the Plant Program's integration with the other eleven Ph.D. programs that comprise the Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences, regarded as one of the finest Ph.D. and M.D.-Ph.D. training environments in the United States. Our goal is to train world-class, creative biologists who study plants yet can utilize other systems as needed. The success of our graduates in obtaining postdoctoral fellowships in leading laboratories, and ultimately professorships or leadership positions in the private sector, attests to the success of this philosophy.
Emphasizing features that are unique to plants, researchers in the Plant Biology Program investigate fundamental biological questions that also interest non-plant scientists. For instance, current research programs include efforts to understand how genes are activated by transcription factors or silenced by chromatin modifications, how membrane-associated protein complexes essential for photosynthesis and electron transport are assembled and regulated. Other examples include programs addressing fundamental questions in bacterial and viral pathogenesis and host defense using plants, or the mechanisms by which plant growth, differentiation, and structure respond to light, gravity, hormones and other physical and biological cues. Numerous laboratories are engaged in studies that may lead to the engineering of useful new traits in crop plants in collaboration with industry partners.
Program of Study
Ph.D. students typically take courses and rotate through three laboratories during their first year. The research rotations in laboratories at Wash U or at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center help students make an informed decision regarding the laboratory in which to complete their thesis research. Rotations at Monsanto or other local companies can also be arranged. To gain teaching experience, students serve as a teaching assistant for an undergraduate course during the second year. Coursework and preliminary examinations are completed during the second year. Students then develop a thesis proposal and devote their efforts almost entirely to research, with participation in journal clubs and seminar series providing ongoing education and the development of public speaking and presentation skills. In addition, funds are available for students to present their work at national research conferences or to participate in short-courses off-campus (e.g., plant genetics summer course at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, NY; quantitative genetics workshop at North Carolina State University). A 15 million dollar permanent endowment that supports plant research within the Biology Department makes possible many creative educational experiences.
Currently, 25 Wash. U. laboratories are affiliated with the Plant Biology Program. An additional 15 laboratories are located at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. The collective scientific expertise of these laboratories spans most of the major areas of modern plant research. Interactions and collaborations among the various laboratories are extensive and common. Participating faculty enjoy strong grant support, enabling innovative research to be carried out by active and productive research groups.
The Plant Biology Program also enjoys close ties with the other programs within the Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences, the School of Engineering and the Departments of Anthropology, Chemistry, and Physics. These alliances and collaborative networks provide students with access to the expertise and laboratory facilities of more than 300 faculty researchers.
Research and Educational Facilities
Modern greenhouses, growth chambers and tissue culture facilities provide controlled environments for plant growth. Centers for microscopy and imaging include multi-photon fluorescence microscopy, confocal microscopy, computational optical sectioning microscopy, and scanning and transmission electron microscopy (including cryo EM). Mass spectrometry and X-ray crystallography facilities are available at Wash U. and the Danforth Plant Science Center to facilitate studies of protein structure and function. The Washington University library system includes virtually every major journal in the biological and chemical sciences. The Department of Biology's library includes most journals in plant biology as well as an extensive collection of botanical journals and books. The facilities of the Missouri Botanical Garden, which includes botanical library and herbarium collections that are among the most extensive in the world, are also available to all students.