National Academy of Sciences member to advance UNT plant science research

Wednesday, September 5, 2012 - 16:28

DENTON (UNT), Texas -- The University of North Texas has hired Dr. Richard A. Dixon, a world-renowned specialist in metabolic engineering of plants, to further its goal to become one of the nation's preeminent research hubs in plant science research.

Dixon has served as the director of the Plant Biology Division at the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation since 1988. He has also held adjunct faculty positions at Rice University, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Oklahoma. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2007. Dixon will join the UNT faculty as a Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences on Feb. 1.

Dixon will be an integral member of UNT's Signaling Mechanisms in Plants research cluster, an interdisciplinary research group established in 2008. The group confronts the challenges of feeding a growing population in the face of increasing demand for more sustainable, bio-based fuels and materials by investigating ways to produce high-quality, high-yield crops under increasingly harsh conditions.

"You can think of what we are doing as trying to help plants do what they do better. It's getting hotter and dryer, so to produce the same yield in these conditions is very challenging," said Dr. Kent Chapman, Regents professor of biology and cluster coordinator. "Our challenge is to understand the natural defenses of plants so that we can work to improve their tolerance."

Specifically, the plant signaling group is trying to understand the mechanisms that control plant response to pests, pathogens, temperature, drought and other factors that jeopardize crop production, while at the same time developing the crops to produce new materials for the bio-based economy.

"UNT's cluster model is an example of how our university is attracting world-class talent to its community of researchers. By building links of expertise across areas, we expand the potential of our faculty and resources," said Dr. Geoff Gamble, vice president for research and economic development. "Dr. Dixon's addition will further cement our leadership in the area of plant signaling, metabolic engineering and bio-based products, while also providing a greater base of knowledge from which to teach our students."

UNT Provost Warren Burggren said "At UNT, we are committed to fulfilling Four Bold Goals that call for conducting graduate education and research of the highest quality, as well as creating meaningful, relevant partnerships in the broader community. Dr. Dixon and his extraordinary research program will allow us to move forward even more rapidly on these important fronts."

Dixon's research focuses on how to use metabolic engineering to produce chemicals that could treat human diseases, create new biorenewable products and improve the quality of forage crops. He currently is the principal investigator or co-principal investigator on active grants exceeding $9 million, including a Department of Energy grant focused on producing biofuels more efficiently and a National Institutes of Health grant investigating the potential of chemicals derived from grape seeds to prevent the onset of Alzheimer's Disease.

"Over the course of my 25 year career at Noble, I built a premier plant biology program that collaborated with prominent scientists from around the world, including researchers at UNT. I am excited to now be joining my UNT colleagues and look forward to contributing to the bio-based economy through our research efforts. The faculty expertise and infrastructure of specialized laboratories and equipment at UNT provide an exceptional working environment for plant research."

Dixon's background in metabolic engineering provides a natural bridge to facilitate research with another UNT cluster -- the engineering-based Renewable Bioproducts cluster focuses on green solutions for consumer and industry products using plants and other bio-based materials. Dixon joins other recently hired fellow researchers from both the plant signaling and the bioproducts groups, including internationally recognized scientists Dr. Vladimir Shulaev, Dr. Ron Mittler and Dr. Stevens Brumbley.

Dixon has had more than 410 papers and chapters published in international journals, and he has been named by the Institute for Scientific Information as one of the 10 most cited authors in the plant and animal sciences. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the editorial boards of five international journals.