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Prominent Plant Biologist Keiko Torii Joins Faculty

Prominent Plant Biologist Keiko Torii Joins Faculty

Keiko Torii

A plant biologist whose work has implications for the medical and agricultural fields, as well as improving plant resiliency in the face of climate change, is making the move to Texas this year. Professor Keiko Torii, a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator and plant biologist, will join the faculty of the Molecular Biosciences Department at The University of Texas at Austin in September 2019.

Torii studies functional tissue patterning, stem cell maintenance and differentiation and how plant cells determine function.

Before joining the faculty of the University of Washington, Torii studied biochemistry and biophysics at the University of Tsukuba in Japan. During her post-doctoral work, she discovered for the first time that plants have receptors that perceive signals from neighboring cells, similar in structure to insulin receptors in humans. Torii recalls that she was truly fascinated about her work--as it suggested that the plant cells, like our human cells, can talk to each other using a similar type of receptor. Indeed, she initially wanted to study basic biomedical science in college, but she made a dramatic change in her career decision to pursue plant molecular biology instead.

“When I heard about (plant genetic engineering) in a lecture, I thought that because the field is just blooming, perhaps there is room for opportunity here,” she said. “I felt like there was a huge prairie or open land in front of me.”

Torii is a founding member of the Institute of Transformative BioMolecules at Nagoya University, part of Japan’s World Premier International Research Center Initiative, pursuing cross-disciplinary research of synthetic chemistry and plant/animal biology. She was a winner of the Saruhashi Prize in 2015, a prize recognizing an outstanding and influential woman scientist in Japan each year. Torii is also an elected fellow of American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS) and American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB).

Much of Torii’s recent work has centered on plant stomata, the mouth-like structure on the surfaces of land plants that allow for gas and moisture to be exchanged with the atmosphere. How the stomata operate, and how different plant cells communicate with each other about which ones will become stomata has been an important question in her work.

“Stomata are only 10 to 20 microns in size, but the total water content of Earth’s atmosphere is estimated to cycle through plant stomata every six months,” Torii said. “Everything plants do is so critical to our survival and plant science is becoming more important in every aspect.”

Torii said she was attracted to the University of Texas because of the potential for collaboration and integrative approaches across fields of medicine, molecular biology and plant biology.

“Texas offers a unique environment for me to pursue this very basic developmental biology while getting more into plant resilience research, especially in light of changing global climate,” she said.

microscopy image of mutant plant epidermis

Image above: In order for stomata to function, they have to be spread out and evenly distributed within a leaf surface. By tweeting the activity of a ‘master regulatory’ gene that drive differentiation of stomata, one can convert all cells on a leaf surface to become stomata. Shown is a microscopy image of such mutant epidermis. Pink color highlights the outlines of individual cells, most of them differentiating into tiny months (stomata made of a pair of guard cells surrounding a pore). Green color is from engineered Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) that marks the differentiation of stomatal progenitor cells.” Images taken by Dr. Kylee Peterson (former Torii lab member)

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