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Principal Investigators

Our principal investigators are leading research in plant biology, genetics and nutritional science to better understand and improve human health impacts by the foods we grow and eat.

Dr. Abdulkerim Eroğlu

Dr. Eroglu is a nutritional biochemist by training with research experience in carotenoid metabolism in humans. The overall research goals of the Eroglu lab are, 1) To elucidate molecular mechanisms behind the chemoprotective effects of dietary carotenoids, and 2) To identify the role of the composition of the gut microbiome in influencing the carotenoid status. To achieve these goals, his lab uses transdisciplinary approaches to unravel how foods affect our genes and how our genetic makeup influences response to dietary constituents. His group works on identifying nutritional effects on genome stability (DNA damage at the molecular level), protein expression (proteomics), and metabolic profiling (metabolomics) to analyze associations between diet and health status

Dr. Tzung-Fu Hsieh

The Hsieh lab coordinates a research program studying the reproduction of flowering plants, including fruits and vegetables. He specializes in systems biology, a new field of research that studies the interactions between the components of biological systems, and how those relationships impact the functions and behaviors of the organisms. His area of focus is epigenetics, which seeks to understand changes in gene activities that are caused by factors other than variations in DNA sequences. His lab studies the development of endosperm, which plays a critical role in human nutrition and health. Cereal crops like corn, rice, wheat and oat are harvested for their grains, which are mostly endosperm. His research will provide new opportunities for investigating how the environment can exert influences on plants through epigenetic changes.

Dr. Massimo Iorizzo

Dr. Massimo Iorizzo’s research aims to leverage advanced genetic and genomic resources to study the structure of crop genomes and elucidate the genetic mechanisms and genes associated with enhanced quality characteristics including health properties. The functionality of plant phytonutrients in the human diet depends on several factors, including the type of metabolites that a plant accumulates, their concentration and chemical structure. Dr. Iorizzo’s research program aims to understand the genetic mechanisms controlling the accumulation and diversification of health-promoting phytochemicals in small fruit crops and vegetables as well as those involved in other quality characteristics (e.g. texture, taste). This research will ultimately lead to establishing cost effective breeding and genomic strategies to develop new varieties or natural products with improved quality and nutritional value.

Dr. Slavko Komarnytsky

Dr. Slavko Komarnytsky is an integrative biologist working to understand the role of diet and nutrient-gene interactions in treatment and prevention of chronic metabolic, immune, and gastrointestinal disorders. Within this broad theme, three major initiatives describe his work, 1) Pharmacogenomics of botanicals and functional foods for modulation of metabolism, inflammation, and gut microbiome; 2) Preclinical and early phase human studies in support of novel botanical interventions, including analysis and quantification of Cannabis (hemp) cannabinoids, and 3) Mobile Discovery program that engages students, organizations, and ethnic communities in search of new antibiotics, and popularizes global health research.

Dr. Xu “Sirius” Li

The Li lab focuses on plant secondary metabolism. Paired with the study of plant genetics and a plant’s genome, this will help further the understanding of how bioactive compounds are produced by plants. Understanding how these compounds are made and accumulated in plants will enable us to produce crops, vegetables and fruits for enhanced health-promoting properties. Dr. Li also is part of a project funded by the Global Climate & Energy Project (GCEP) which is studying lignin, a plant compound that inhibits extraction of materials used in biofuels.

Dr. Mary Ann Lila

The LilaLab promotes a transdisciplinary approach to characterization of plant-derived bioactive chemicals (phytoactives) that interface with human therapeutic targets to modulate human health. The team examines the metabolic fate of phytoactive compounds in human fluids, interprets their biosignatures, and tracks human health impacts coincident with intake of phytoactive constituents. Priority projects include 1) Food Allergy -mitigating edible protein (peanut, milk, egg, soy) product allergenicity via irreversible & reversible binding of fruit/plant proanthocyanidins and 2) Protein-Phytoactive Aggregation – colloidal complexation strategies to enhance efficacy, bioaccessibility and functionality. Primary funding support from USDA (including ANNH, SCRI, SBIR and Capacity Building grants), the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) and industry-sponsored projects.

Dr. Andrew Neilson

Dr. Neilson’s research focuses on the interactions between dietary phytochemicals (particularly flavonoids) and the gut microbiome, and how these interactions influence human health. Of specific interest are the bioactivities of microbial metabolites produced when the gut microbiome metabolizes unabsorbed dietary components. Specific health areas of interest include gut health and metabolic syndrome. Additionally, Dr. Neilson is investigating how individual genetic variability influences the efficacy of dietary phytochemicals for improvement of gut health and metabolic syndrome.

Dr. Penelope Perkins-Veazie

The Perkins-Veazie lab works with a variety of fruits and vegetables evaluating genotypes, cultivars, production and environmental effects, storage strategies and packaging to develop postharvest technologies to extend quality and shelf life. Ways to conserve or improve bioactives in fruits and vegetables from farm to fork are explored. Research projects include new ways to utilize watermelon, both in health and in niche markets; evaluating new breeding lines of tomatoes for enhanced antioxidants; evaluating and extending the shelf life of small fruits including raspberry, blackberry and muscadine grape; following changes in vitamin A content of butternut squash with storage, variety, and production location, and evaluating food safety technologies on postharvest life and quality of vegetables.

Dr. Giuseppe Valacchi

Dr. Valacchi’s research is focused on the mechanism by which modified redox homeostasis can affect tissue physiology and develop in patho-physiological processes. His lab evaluates the effect of exogenous and endogenous sources of oxidative stress on target organs such as skin, GI tract and lung and the signal pathways involved in the cellular responses to these insults, with special focus on epithelial wound healing. He also studies how new topical approaches, derived from natural compounds, can ameliorate wound healing and tissue regeneration in both physiological and pathological situations. His research interests include understanding the role of oxidative stress and the effect of dietary intervention in the rare disease, Rett Syndrome.