Of Blooms and Biofuels

It’s a simple question with a complex answer: How do plants know when to flower?

Thanks to biochemistry professor Rick Amasino, we now know a lot more about the genes and environmental variables—for example, changes in temperature or length of day—governing that process, as well as how to control it. Amasino and his team also devised a way to genetically regulate senescence, the process by which leaves age and drop from plants.

That pioneering work has the potential to improve the yield of agricultural crops (corn, soybean, alfalfa, vegetables) as well as lengthen the beauty of ornamental plants and cut flowers, and it sparked off follow-up research at universities and companies around the world.

Amasino is as devoted to teaching as he is to research—and that extends beyond his students on the UW–Madison campus. He has used special grants to improve science education among K–12 teachers and students and as a principal investigator of education and outreach for the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center. One of his key projects has been to work with Native American communities in Wisconsin to introduce bioenergy education in tribal schools.