Environmental Conservation & Plant Biology

The small while flowers and large leaves of the moonseed plant

The common moonseed plant, Menispermum canandense


Courtesy of Colin Kim/Whitehead Institute


Plants are crucial to human wellbeing—as sources of food, as the basis of many current and potential drugs, and for limiting and mitigating climate change. Our plant biology researchers are driving advancements that hold the promise of major practical impact on agriculture, conservation, and medical treatment.

Mary Gehring, for example, uses plant-based research to learn how factors beyond DNA can change a gene’s expression in ways that cause disease. She is also applying her path breaking work on plant epigenetics to create a series of improved seed crops that have substantial nutritional content and are able to thrive in a changing climate. By combining the ancient wisdom of plant-based medicine with genomics, analytical chemistry, and synthetic biology Jing-Ke Weng is developing new, sustainable approaches for synthesizing nature-inspired therapeutics. Ultimately, his pioneering methods for improving on molecular structures found in nature could improve the effectiveness of the thousands of current therapeutics—from traditional remedies to FDA-approved drugs such as the antimalarial artemisinin and the cancer treatment paclitaxel—that derive from plants and trees; and it could limit the deforestation caused by harvesting that flora. 

Learn more about our work on Plant Biology—as well as related research in the realms of Genetics & Genomics, Infectious Disease, and Protein Form & Function.