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Research Group Schaaf


We are interested to better understand how plants perceive and react to nutrient imbalances, both deficiencies and toxicities. We particularly aim to understand how plants cope if such nutrient imbalances occur simultaneously with other stresses and how plants “decide” which of the often antagonistic pathways to trigger in order to cope with their various biotic and abiotic environmental challenges.

We are especially intrigued by the enigmatic molecular messengers named inositol pyrophosphates, molecules that derive from phytate or InsP6 (an important ‘anti-nutrient’ for humans and non-ruminant animals but an important P-storage molecule for plants). Recent work in our lab focusses on the question of how plants use these messengers to coordinate phosphate starvation responses and to mount defenses against necrotrophic fungi and insect herbivores. Intriguingly, some phytopathogenic bacteria potently interfere in the synthesis of these messengers and we are curious to find out how and to which purpose this is done and how plants can become resistant against such bacteria.

A second type of molecular messengers we are intrigued by are phosphoinositides (the lipid-arm of inositol signaling). These lipid messengers regulate a plethora of signaling events at membrane interfaces and thereby not only determine developmental processes but importantly also enable the translation of environmental cues into cellular responses. We have made substantial advances in characterizing SEC14-type lipid binding proteins that among others regulate the synthesis and distribution of phosphoinositides within cells. We are particular interested in the role of these proteins in membrane morphogenesis, root hair formation, nutrient acquisition and plant immunity.

Our work covers different scales from high resolution crystallography at the nanometer scale to nutrient cycling at the field scale. To investigate the mechanisms by which plants perceive different abiotic and biotic signals and integrate diverse external stimuli into meaningful responses, we follow a interdisciplinary approach that combines ionomics, biochemistry, genetics, molecular-, and synthetic biology.

Within the Cluster of Excellence “PhenoRob – Robotics and Phenotyping for Sustainable Crop Production” we are developing tools to diagnose nutrient imbalances by non-invasive methods and are interested in nutrient cycling in diversified cropping systems.

We hope our work on both the molecular/genetic basis of nutrient homeostasis as well as our efforts in PhenoRob helps crop breeding and management efforts to reduce the negative footprint of agriculture.