Profile of Todd Michael
Todd Michael is research professor in the Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory. He leverages genetic sequencing technology and computational biology to uncover how genomic differences enable plants to better respond to and exploit their environments. As a member of Salk’s Harnessing Plants Initiative leadership team, Michael is providing genome sequencing support to create Salk Ideal Plants®, which store excess amounts of atmospheric carbon deep in the ground as a means to help mitigate climate change.
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So when most people think of New Jersey, they think of the TV show Jersey Shore or Sopranos. But the area of New Jersey, I'm from, it's called South Jersey and it's next to the pine barrens. I had a teacher, Mrs. Marshall, in seventh grade, who gave me a leaf project. And that project was to go around and collect leaves from all the different trees in the neighborhood. Something just struck me about how different every single leaf was then that there must be some type of code that makes those leaves all different. I'd really never thought about it before that something inside of that organism made it like that. It was just like, wow, there has to be something here. I asked my teacher if I really wanted to learn more about that, what would I do? And she just had no idea. It wasn't until college that I realized that that meant sequencing the genome. But my guidance counselor was like, there's no job like that, I guess there is. Being a scientist. I wanted to sequence plant genomes, figure out what was it in the code that made them what they are. One of the things that my lab focuses on, which is looking at a diverse array of different types of plants with unique morphological and physiological features to understand what are the slight innovations in the genome that bring out these unique characteristics. Recently, we've published a paper on a plant called isoetes. It's related to mosses and it grows in the water. But it has this type of photosynthesis called CAM photosynthesis, which means separates when it fixes the carbon by night and day. Instead of fixing the carbon during the day, it fixes carbon at night. This type of photosynthesis is actually usually thought of with plants that are drought tolerant. And this is actually controlled by the Circadian clock. The Circadian Clock is an internal timing mechanism in plants that enables them to partition their biology at very specific times of day. In addition to plants that use it to conserve water in dry environments, this is also used in underwater environments. This is a very unique use of CAM photosynthesis. And the idea is that there is more carbon available during the night in the water. So basically it partitions its carbon dioxide capturing to the night time. Ultimately, my vision is that if we understand all these unique features of plants, the edge cases of how plants have adapted to very specific environments or specific physiologies or very specific architectures, that then we can start to use that knowledge to build plants up that do the specific things that we want in the Harnessing Plants initiative is can we leverage any of these innovations that these plants have made to actually generate plants that have larger roots, deeper roots, or capture more carbon. One of the things that would be a great culmination of all these different aspects of plant genomes and how architecture of plant genomes work. And the circadian clock and time of day signaling is showing that we could potentially store more carbon in roots and make more yield all in one.