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Biology professor’s plant development research has big implications

Sep 11, 2023

IU Bloomington assistant biology professor Luke Nikolov in his laboratory. Video image capture by Eric Hanus, Indiana Universit... IU Bloomington assistant biology professor Luke Nikolov in his laboratory. Video image capture by Eric Hanus, Indiana UniversityAn assistant professor of biology at Indiana University Bloomington is working to understand plant development to such a detailed degree that it could lead to easier gene manipulation with specific benefits for humans, such as greater crop yields and increased biofuel production.

Luke Nikolov joined the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Biology in January 2023, coming from UCLA. He teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in plant biology and genetics, but his primary responsibility now is building up his lab. He is the primary investigator for the Floral Development and Diversity Lab, which will include undergraduate and graduate students.

Cross sections of thale cress in different stages of development are displayed on a computer screen. Video image grab by Eric H... Cross sections of thale cress in different stages of development are displayed on a computer screen. Video image grab by Eric HanusThey’ll continue research on a project that Nikolov has worked on the past few years and is nearing fruition: creating a floral cell atlas. He’s used thale cress, a small plant in the mustard family that’s found worldwide, as the model plant for research. A detailed molecular understanding of plant development and expression of characteristics can benefit humans, he said.

“The atlases make genetic manipulation easier,” Nikolov said. “If you understand where genes are switched on, we have tools to manipulate cell identity with remarkable precision according to our own goals.”

The broader goal, Nikolov said, would be to create floral atlases for as many plants as possible.

Applications of research

One of the projects Nikolov is involved with involves oil-producing crops — those that make oil in their seeds — which are important to the biofuel industry. When creating biofuels, it’s important to have the right mix of oils to achieve a specific purpose, Nikolov said.

“Knowing which of the genes get turned on and off in a specific developmental stage, we can manipulate the composition of the oils,” Nikolov said.

Genetic knowledge of plants and the ability to tweak their development could have other benefits, Nikolov added.

One of the plants that Nikolov grows to use for his research. Video image capture by Eric Hanus One of the plants that Nikolov grows to use for his research. Video image capture by Eric HanusSome flowering plants make nectar for bees to consume. With pollinator populations in decline, tweaking plant development to improve the nutritional components of the nectar could help the health of pollinators, Nikolov said.

The ability to manipulate plant development could also increase resilience in the face of global climate change, Nikolov said.

“The stable environments we are used to are becoming more unpredictable,” Nikolov said. “If there is any way to build resilience into plants, that would be very valuable to use.”

Craig Pikaard, Nikolov’s faculty mentor at IU, said he is excited about Nikolov’s research and what it will yield.

“One of the things I find most interesting about Luke’s work is that for some genes whose mutation causes complete loss of floral organs, limiting what more can be learned, Luke can see that gene at work in multiple different cell types, allowing new insights into just why that gene is so important,” Pikaard said. “It is technically demanding work that also requires considerable skill in the fields of genomics and bioinformatics.”

A good fit

Nikolov said his love of plants started in childhood. He grew up in a small town in the Bulgarian mountains, and he would go with his parents to Alpine meadows covered with many varieties of flowers.

“I would see different flowers and colors and shapes, and I always wondered, ‘How did it happen?’” Nikolov said.

IU Bloomington appealed to Nikolov as a place to teach and conduct research, he said, because of the Department of Biology’s long tradition in the two fields of science he’s involved in: plant molecular biology and development, and evolutionary developmental biology. He said one class of plant hormones was discovered by a longtime IU professor, Carlos O. Miller.

“This is what attracted me to IU, and the people who continue to work in this field,” Nikolov said. “It’s a good environment and a good community.”

The lab Nikolov is building up has an array of microscopes, a freezer for storing plant samples and a room for growing plants and harvesting their seeds. He expects to have about eight students working in his lab this year, and maybe as many as 12 in the future.

Pikaard said the university and Department of Biology are fortunate to have him.

“He has an amazingly broad range of expertise in plant biology and in each of the sub-disciplines of the genome, cell and developmental biology section of the Department of Biology,” said Pikaard, Distinguished Professor and Carlos O. Miller Professor in the Department of Biology and the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry. “He is also a lively, interesting and engaging person who is a great colleague, and I am sure will be a very popular teacher.”

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Kirk Johannesen

Communications Consultant, Strategic Communications

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