Equipment in Jerry Cohen's Lab.

Researcher Spotlight: Jerry D. Cohen

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Jerry D. Cohen is a Gordon and Margaret Bailey Professor in the Department of Horticultural Science. He is based on the St. Paul campus and has worked at the University since January 2000. His current research focus is understanding the basic biology of plant growth and how plants respond to biological and physical stresses.

Jerry D. Cohen.

What is the primary focus of your research today?

Our research is aimed at understanding the basic biology of plant growth—particularly the signaling systems that regulate growth and development as well as plant responses to biological and physical stresses. Our group focuses on the application of modern biochemical analysis supplemented by metabolomics and proteomic systems biology approaches to look at complex biological processes.

Currently we have four main projects or themes in the lab. First is an interest in understanding the regulation of the levels of the plant hormone auxin in plants. Auxin is the major hormone involved in plant growth regulation, and understanding its regulation is important for understanding plant growth. Second, we are interested in the ‘second auxin’ indole-3-butyric acid and how it regulates root growth. As a practical woody plant model we use hybrid hazelnut because of its potential as a new crop. Third, we are interested in the biological activity of compound in plant resins and in the resins collected by honey bees, as pollinator health is important for horticultural crop production. Finally, we are interested in basic mechanisms for measuring and understanding biochemical flux in whole plants using stable isotope labeling and novel whole plant approaches.

What do you hope to accomplish next?

In the past most scientific studies have relied on measurements of a single change, be it the level of a compound or the yield of a crop. Systems biology and the underpinning technologies now allow networks of reactions, traits, and phenotypes to be examined together to allow us to approach truly complex developmental questions. Our next accomplishment, I hope, will be to demonstrate the value of such approaches by ‘solving’ many long-studied problems in plant biology

How does your research potentially impact the state of Minnesota and beyond?

Our most immediate project to impact Minnesota would be our work on micropropagtion of hazelnut. We have a long-term interest in woody plant agriculture and especially in limitations on rooting ability. The American hazelnut (Corylus americana) is a native woody shrub that produces small but tasty nuts. Hybrids between native and domesticated European hazelnuts (Corylus avellana) combine the nut quality and yield of the European hazelnuts with the hardiness and disease resistance of the natives. Both American and hybrid hazelnuts have strong market potential, with demand likely to grow as appreciation of the health value of eating tree nuts increases. Although hybrid hazelnuts (Corylus americana x C. avellana) have potential to become a profitable and environmentally beneficial crop in the Midwest, their production is currently limited by inefficient methods of vegetative propagation to produce consistent, high-performing plants. Although various claims have been made for the success of hazelnut micropropagation, to date significant barriers remain for its full commercialization. We feel that our work on understanding the rooting process will allow for the development of hazelnut as an important Minnesota crop species and hopefully be a model for development of other new horticultural crop and/or landscape species.

Did you do research anywhere else before the University? If yes, where and how did it differ from your research today?

My current position is, in many ways, the start of a second career. After graduate school and two years of postdoctoral research at Michigan State University I was offered and accepted an interdisciplinary Plant Physiologist/Research Chemist scientist position with the USDA Agricultural Research Service in the Plant Hormone Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland. My position was 100% research with some periods of scientific administration mixed in. Although I held an adjunct faculty position at the University of Maryland and graduated 9 Ph.D. students over the years, education was not our primary mission. The three major differences between there and my current position are: much lower administrative burden, more opportunities for student involvement in research, and no one tells me what not to work on.

What is your most notable accomplishment at the University so far?

A major factor for me making the change to the university on-campus faculty position was the opportunity to try to see if I could accomplish something in the areas of teaching at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Serving as the director of graduate studies in the Plant Biological Sciences program and also being recognized by the award for Outstanding Contributions to Postbaccalaureate, Graduate, and Professional Education at the University of Minnesota — which comes with an associated membership in the Academy of Distinguished Teachers — were all important to me in that they showed that my decision to change my career direction had positive outcomes and had made a difference for the students in the university community.

What do you view as your greatest work accomplishment?

Although we have made some new and exciting research findings (discovered indole-3-butyric acid in plants, described new pathways to make indole-3-acetic acid by plants, isolated bioactive compounds from plant resins, developed stable isotope growth facilities, etc), the greatest work accomplishment has been to educate students in the process of scientific discovery. This is true at the level of exploratory experiences in undergraduate classes and lectures about how things were discovered, through to research direction of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

What is your favorite thing to do when you are not at work?

Although I think ‘not at work’ is not a realistic expression for a scientist (I am always thinking, so in that sense I never really stop work), I can be distracted by working in my wood and metal shop at home.

What is your motto or personal mantra?

When I worked at the National Science Foundation I said “Our goal is to fund good science” so many times that they made it my mantra in the gift they gave me when I left. Now that I am spending their funds, I guess we can change that to “Our goal is to do good science” — or maybe it should be great science.

Jerry Cohen in his lab.

 Jerry D. Cohen in the Phytohormone Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Laboratory where he conducts his research.

Hazelnut.

Among his many projects, Jerry Cohen is working on breeding a better hazelnut with the goal of eventually making hazelnuts an important Minnesota crop species.