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Sean Cutler

Watch research video Assistant Professor of Plant Cell Biology & Chemistry
Associate Director, National Science Foundation ChemGen IGERT
Sean 
Cutler

Areas of Expertise

Areas of Expertise:
  • Chemical Genomics
  • Analysis and Exploitation of Natural Variation Using Small Molecules
College: Affiliations: Press Release / Article: Profile:

Select Honors and Distinctions

  • Top 10 Research Breakthroughs of 2009, Science
  • Canadian Research Chair in Plant Functional Genomics

Research Summary

Solutions for crops facing drought; using plants to study how and why people respond differently to drugs; using chemical genetics to identify new factors that regulate Arabidopsis cell expansion; and the analysis and exploitation of natural variation using small molecules.

Q&A

Q: How does your work impact agriculture?
My lab discovers new chemicals that can be used to both understand and improve plant growth, particularly under conditions of drought.

Q: Your research contribution made it to Science magazine’s list of the top 10 breakthroughs of 2009. What was that research about?
In April 2009, my lab showed how abscisic acid, a naturally-produced plant stress hormone, helps plants survive by inhibiting their growth in times of drought. This research has important agricultural implications.

Q: The New York Times reported how you openly shared your data with key competitors before publishing your results. Why did you?
Because it turned my competitors into collaborators! Several labs working in the abscisic acid signaling field tested the abscisic acid receptor that my lab identified, and validated my results. Today we are getting closer to determining how plants survive drought, with huge implications for agriculture particularly in regions where water and drought are such big concerns.

Q: How did you get started in this line of research?
I have had a lifelong fascination with plants and the bioactive molecules that they make. My father is a MD and I used to read his copy of the Physician’s Desktop Reference, just out of curiosity and interest. In addition, I had some tremendous mentors who helped shape my biological acumen. As an undergraduate student I took a class on plant molecular genetics with University of Toronto professor Peter McCourt. It excited me tremendously and I decided to work in his lab on the model species Arabidopsis.

Q: What makes UCR a good fit for your research?
UCR is currently the premiere institution for the chemical approach to plant biology -- called the "chemical genetic" approach -- that my lab uses. Chemical genetic research requires strong institutional support. UCR realized the value of this research platform quite early, and made significant investments in it. UCR is, hands down, the best place for me to be conducting my research program right now.

Q: What are some examples of research topics that plant cell biologists are exploring?
In chemical biology, we really need to systematically understand what has been called “The Druggable Genome”. We still know relatively little about the druggable genomes of animals and even less about those of plants. Ultimately, we want to define all of the “druggable” points so that we best know how to control human and plant physiology. With this knowledge, we would be in a better position to improve crop yields and human health.

On the plant biology side, we now have the complete genome sequences of several plants. However, we only know of a handful of endogenous signals that plants make to control their growth. The number of hormones is almost 100-fold fewer than the number of predicted receptors. Because of this, there is a belief that plants may control their growth and development with many more bioactive molecules (i.e., hormones) than we are currently aware of. Discovering the full complement of plant hormones and understanding how they work is a very big goal that will have a tremendous impact on agriculture.
Sean Cutler "In April 2009, my lab showed how abscisic acid, a naturally-produced plant stress hormone, helps plants survive by inhibiting their growth in times of drought."

—Sean Cutler