News Release

Danforth Center announces new principal investigator

Research program uses advanced imaging to better understand how plant cells communicate with each other

Business Announcement

Donald Danforth Plant Science Center

Dr. Tessa Burch-Smith, Associate Member, Donald Danforth Plant Science Center

image: Dr. Tessa Burch-Smith, Associate Member, Donald Danforth Plant Science Center view more 

Credit: Donald Danforth Plant Science Center

ST. LOUIS, MO, Sept. 2, 2021– The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center announced today that Tessa Burch-Smith, PhD, has joined the Danforth Center as Associate Member and Principal Investigator. Her research is focused on how plant cells communicate with each other through intercellular pores called plasmodesmata (PD). Plants are actually a vast network of interconnected cells that exchange essential molecules like sugars, proteins and RNA through PD during growth and development. Viruses exploit PD channels to move from cell to cell as they spread through plants. 

“A better understanding of PD would allow scientists to control how plants distribute resources to their cells, resulting in a more efficient plant,” explains Burch-Smith. “For instance, if we want to eat the fruits of a plant, we could redirect the plant to put more resources towards producing larger fruit instead of growing taller.” This information could also allow plant scientists to control virus infections. “By understanding how a virus moves through the plant via PD, it could be possible to slow the movement through the plant, eliminating the disease completely or preventing a more severe infection,” she added.

Plasmodesmata cannot be seen without the aid of electron microscopy. Burch-Smith and her lab collaborate with Kirk Czymmek, PhDthe Advanced Bioimaging Laboratory (ABL) at the Center. Electron microscopy allows investigation into how PD pores form between cells, the structure of PD, as well as PD special functions. In 2021, the ABL acquired a state-of-the-art transmission electron microscopy system to enable the Burch-Smith lab create nanometer scale three-dimensional reconstructions of PD. Since Burch-Smith and her lab also want to understand the movement of molecules between cells, they plan to use the ABL’s super-resolution light microscopy to see single molecules that are part of PD and how they behave in living cells. 

Ultimately, Burch-Smith’s research could enable farmers to produce more food with a smaller environmental footprint, with less risk of losing yield to diseases. As climate change continues to impact agriculture and farming communities around the world, Burch-Smith’s research could have impact on food security in the future. 

Burch-Smith is also committed to creating inclusive opportunity and community in plant science. “I think there are lots of people out there with untapped potential who would make great scientists,” said Burch-Smith. “One of my goals is to make science feel more attainable. We need to have people with varied interests and outlooks in science so that we can produce outcomes that are varied.” In nearly 10 years at the University of Tennessee, her lab hosted over 40 undergraduates, many of whom went on to graduate school and even medical school. “I think that's one of the major strengths of my group. We're very diverse in composition, skill level and origins. I'm really proud of that,” she says.

“We are so excited to welcome Tessa Burch-Smith and her research team to the Danforth Center,” said President and CEO, Jim Carrington, PhD. “She will be doing research at the core of how plant cells function, and we believe that can lead in many directions that have impact.”

Prior to Burch-Smith joining the Center she served as as Associate Professor, Department of Biochemistry and Cellular & Molecular Biology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She received her PhD in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at Yale University, and earned her BSc in Biology and Chemistry at the University of the West Indies in Barbados.  

About The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center
Founded in 1998, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is a nonprofit research institute with a mission to improve the human condition through plant science. Research, education and outreach aim to have impact at the nexus of food security and the environment, and position the St. Louis region as a world center for plant science. The Center’s work is funded through competitive grants from many sources, including the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Energy, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and through the support of individuals and corporations. 

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