Focus on Broader Impacts: Dr. Roberto Gaxiola, Arizona State University

Dr. Gaxiola and his lab

Dr. Robert0 Gaxiola from Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences and his colleagues have made an exciting discovery that has broader implications for all of plant biology.

Dr. Gaxiola’s research explores the roles of enzymes (proteins that enhance chemical reactions in cells) known as proton-pumping pyrophosphatases (specifically the Type I H+-PPases) in plants, and how there may be more to these enzymes than previously thought. Specifically, he has been able to show that these enzymes energize individual plant cells and also have a second important role in energizing the movement of sugar in the plant’s “circulatory system” (called the phloem). Through laboratory, greenhouse and field experiments, Gaxiola and his team were able to learn that plants with enhanced H+-PPase activity display larger root systems and other physiological changes that improve growth and tolerance to adverse conditions, such as water shortages or high amounts of salinity.

Dr. Gaxiola’s technology has produced higher crop yields in over 14 plants, including rice, corn, wheat, tomato, and cotton. For example, the Australian Center for Plant Functional Genomics (ACPFG) adopted his technology after field-testing in Western Australia demonstrated significant improvement in barley yields. He has also been part of the International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP) program, a program with the goal of increasing wheat grain yields by 50 percent in the next 20 years via increases in genetic potential.

In addition to the scientific broader impacts of his work, Dr. Gaxiola also believes in participating in educational outreach to the general public. He works together with ASU’s web-based K-12 education resource called “Ask a Biologist” to develop content based on his research, its implications for biomass generation, and how it relates to the movement of energy throughout biological systems. He believes that the best way to understand a complex concept is by revealing its intrinsic simplicity and that having K-12 students as his audience is a beautiful chance to both test this concept and spread “complex” scientific knowledge.

When asked what advice he would give to a prospective IOS PI about strengthening their broader impacts, Dr. Gaxiola suggested to try to simplify complex scientific ideas when engaging the general public and make the scientific problems relatable to “everyday” problems.

This work is supported by NSF IOS award 1557890.