The Baxter Laboratory focuses on understanding how plants adapt to their environment, specializing in using the elemental accumulation of plant tissues as a window into this complex process. Our efforts focus on the seeds of corn and soybeans, but we also work with other plants, including the crops sorghum, wheat and cotton and the model plants Arabidopsis and Setaria. We use genetics combined with two new methods of studying plants; ionomics (high throughput elemental profiling) and phenomics (automated greenhouse combined with image analysis).
The elemental composition of seeds is important, not only as food source, but also as a readout of many physiological processes that are important for plant growth. If we can understand the processing and genes controlling elemental accumulation, we can use that knowledge to improve the nutrient content, productivity and fertilizer efficiency of our crops. The Baxter lab uses ionomics to try to address these questions. Our lab uses a high throughput elemental profiling facility based around Inductively Coupled Plasma - Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MS) to analyze >1700 samples per week, measuring the levels of 20 elements in each sample (see cartoon below). This data is processed using statistical and bioinformatical methods and combined with genetics to identify the genes and Gene X Environment interactions underlying elemental accumulation in plants.
Advances in imaging and robotics have enabled new ways of analyzing plants as they grow over time. We are using the brand new Bellweather Foundation Phenotyping Facility to understand how plants respond to drought. The facility can accommodate up to 1140 plants, imaging them as often as every other day. Working with several other labs at the Danforth Center, we have developed software and analytical pipelines that allow us to analyze the 8000 images a day that the system produces.