Faculty voice:

Robert Last: An evolving career in plant genetics

Sept. 13, 2017

Robert Last is the MSU Barnett Rosenberg Professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and plant biology.

How does an undergraduate degree in organic chemistry evolve into a deep-rooted career in plant biology? I’ll explain.

I’ve been at MSU since 2004, and I’m currently a Barnett Rosenberg Professor with joint appointments in the Department of Plant Biology and the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. After completing my undergraduate training in organic chemistry, I went on to receive my Ph.D. in biological sciences.

I actually wanted to study what my lab is studying now — protein evolution. But when I applied to graduate school, nearly 40 years ago, we didn’t have the technology to do this. So, I ended up doing something completely different.

It was the dawning of the age of molecular biology, and I got hooked on using genetics to study complex processes. What we do now is somewhere in between. I’m studying the evolution of proteins and their structure and function in plants, using analytical chemistry and a lot of genetics and genomics.

My research at MSU during the past 13 years has been diverse and wide-ranging. For decades, I’ve been interested in small molecules, or metabolites, that plants make for their own benefit but which humans then take advantage of — vitamins, for instance. These days, we study how plants regulate production of nutritionally essential amino acids using a mix of old-school and cutting-edge technologies.

For the past seven or eight years, my lab has also been using Arabidopsis to study the proteins that affect the structure and function of photosynthetic processes in chloroplasts. We’re interested in how the chloroplast protects itself — how it prevents and repairs damage from excess light. We specifically work with the mega Dalton Photosystem II protein complex.

Other projects in my lab involve specialized metabolism, historically called secondary metabolism. My research team is interested in how these metabolic pathways evolve. For this work, we are using the tomato and its relatives in the Solanaceae family. Specifically, they work with the trichomes, the small hair cells located on the leaves and stems of the plant. This work could lead to the improvement of important domestic and international crops.

During recent years, more advanced genetic screening and analysis techniques have become available, and newer technologies — such as mass spectrometry — are being routinely used. One of the best such facilities in the country is located in the basement of the MSU Biochemistry Building and is directed by Dan Jones, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology.

The importance of working collaboratively with faculty and students — both on and off campus — cannot be stressed enough. At any given time, my lab employs about eight full-time individuals, including graduate students, postdocs, lab technicians as well as a handful of undergraduate students. I place a high value on the research community, whether it’s the people in my lab, the members of the plant biology department or MSU as a whole.

I think biology is endlessly interesting, and MSU is the best place in the country for my area of plant science — plant metabolism. MSU has been very generous to me and I have many great colleagues here.