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August 31, 2017

Professor’s Research Into Plant Hormones Could Improve How Crops Respond to Climate Change

photo of Professor Heyl in a lab coat and surrounded by plants in a greenhouse

Climate change is having a profound impact on how and where crops grow. The work of Alexander Heyl, Ph.D., assistant professor of molecular biology at Adelphi University, on plant hormones could improve how plants respond to these changes .

“What most people aren’t aware of is that plants also have hormones,” Dr. Heyl explains. “And just like in animals, they regulate many developmental processes.”

Dr. Heyl explores how signaling processes in plant hormones, particularly one called cytokinin, can reshape the way we think about agricultural development and human health. He studies the pathways of plant hormones, examining how they work with an eye towards creating crops that create larger yields.

plant mold sample 1
plant mold sample 2
Moss samples from Professor Heyl’s lab.

“If you understand how a certain process is regulated, you can modify it,” he says. “Since plant hormones affect many aspects of the plant’s life, you can change a lot about how a plant reacts to the environment—for example, how a plant responds to a drought or invasion of bacteria.”

For now, Dr. Heyl and his team at Adelphi are studying how cytokinin can regulate changes in protein expression, the application of which could protect plants from harsh environmental conditions. Already, the French agricultural company Biogemma has used the professor’s patented research to try to coax more yield from canola seeds. If that works, Dr. Heyl says, he could try the same process on cash crops like corn or rice.

Perhaps the most exciting element of Dr. Heyl’s plant research is its potential to combat the side effects of climate change. “We will face big problems due to the availability of land that’s amenable to agriculture because of changes in the climate,” he says. “If we are able to make plants more resistant to stress factors that are caused by drought or their environments, that can [make land more viable].”

Despite recent dips in government funding for theoretical research like Dr. Heyl’s, he is hopeful about the future of scientific discovery. As a teacher, he heeds the advice of German Nobel Prize winner Max Planck who argued, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up familiar with it.”

In his classes, Dr. Heyl broaches not just the science, but the ethical challenges inherent to such research. For example, he encourages his students to consider how mapping an individual’s genome could revolutionize individual healthcare and, at the same time, raise health insurance costs should a provider learn that someone has a higher chance of developing cancer. “We want to give them a foundation, but ultimately, we want them to use that knowledge to address the problems at hand,” he says.

Inside and outside of the classroom, Dr. Heyl feels a responsibility to educate the public.

“A lot of my colleagues feel it’s their duty to talk with the people,” Dr. Heyl says. “It’s not good to say, ‘transgenic food is great’,” referring to food grown from plants that have been genetically tweaked. “I think it’s important we always see both sides and let the people decide for themselves what their opinion is.”

Dr. Heyl is teaching Botany—for the first time at Adelphi in 10 years—and Biology 111, Biological Concepts and Methods I, this fall.


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