Climate change will lead to extreme changes in water availability for agriculture. Just to cite an example, predictions suggest that at 4 ºC warming, mean maize yields will be negatively affected by more than 40% in Mexico. To mitigate the impact of global warming on crop production, it is essential to understand how plants deal with water limitation. Our research aims to unravel the molecular mechanisms that cells use to perceive and respond to water deficit and apply this knowledge by engineering biological systems with improved water perception, response, and acclimation to dehydration conditions. To do so, our lab combines biochemistry, cell biology, protein biophysics, molecular biology, genetics, and synthetic biology techniques, using a diverse set of model organisms.
WHAT ARE THE MOLECULAR MECHANISMS THAT CELLS USE TO SENSE WATER AVAILABILITY?
Due to their sessile nature, plants have evolved multiple strategies to cope with constant variations of environmental conditions. Their molecular responses to water deficit have been extensively studied, but how the lack of water is sensed by plants cells in the first place remains largely unknown.
Our lab aims to unravel the molecular players that directly sense water availability in higher plants. To do so, we develop genetically encoded fluorescent biosensors as reporters of the water status of living cells in real time and in a non-destructive manner. These tools will allow us to monitor how intracellular water content changes when the plant is exposed to dehydration and/or desiccation. Understanding how intracellular water dynamics is altered during water deficit will facilitate the identification of the molecular basis of water perception in plants and other organisms.
HOW DO CELLS DYNAMICALLY ORGANIZE IN RESPONSE TO ENVIRONMENTAL CHALLENGES?
Cells organize their biochemistry into different compartments such as membrane-enclosed organelles. Cell compartmentalization also occurs in dynamic membraneless compartments, known as biomolecular condensates, that form through liquid-liquid phase separation. A particular example is the formation of biomolecular condensates during the hyperosmotic shock response in yeast.
We aim to understand the molecular basis and function of the protein phase transitions induced by osmotic shocks in unicellular and multicellular organisms. Understanding the stress-induced protein re-localization will enable us to design synthetic biomolecular condensates that aid in the cellular response to adverse conditions.
ENGINEERING SYNTHETIC SIGNALING PATHWAYS.
Synthetic biology is an emerging field that aims to redesign living organisms for useful purposes. We hypothesize that engineering organisms to differentially sense and respond to environmental challenges will enable us to tune their ability to thrive under non-ideal conditions.
Our lab designs signal transduction pathways that don’t occur naturally in model organism in order to test the effect of altering the timing and the magnitude of the response to stress. We do this by directly coupling environmentally-sensitive disordered regions with effector domains that function at the final stage of the signaling pathway. Our ultimate goal is to express the synthetic signal transduction pathways in higher plants in order to improve their ability to grow in conditions that are expected to be prevalent due to global warming.