Mackenzie Named Inaugural Director of Plant Institute

Sally Mackenzie sees a unique opportunity for Penn State to address complex global challenges in an unprecedented way.

Sally Mackenize

Sally Mackenzie, Lloyd and Dottie Huck Chair for Functional Genomics, Professor of Biology, and Professor of Plant Science, will head the new Plant Institute at Penn State. The Institute was launched in September 2019 to encourage transdisciplinary, plant-related research collaborations across the university. Mackenzie sees the new unit as a unique opportunity for Penn State to address complex global challenges identified by the National Academies and others as being the most critical over the next 30 to 50 years; namely, mitigating climate change effects through development of sustainable systems for food production, moderating crop disease and insect damage, forest restoration, and modeling and prediction of climate impacts.

“We have all of the pieces to address these issues, including climatology,” Mackenzie said. “We’d like people to feel that we’re really primed right now to bring all of the pieces together to the fore; that there is a sense of not just urgency, but a sense of responsibility to make our work truly relevant to the emerging priorities of the country. Our efforts will not only be directed toward research, though; we will partner with others on campus to enhance student education by interfacing plant biology with information science to help address the big data needs of future agriculture and ecology systems.”

The Plant Institute will harness interdisciplinary knowledge to transform the future of plants. 85 faculty members have been invited to contribute to the unit, from a wide range of academic departments that includes Agricultural and Biological Engineering, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Biology, Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, Ecosystem Science and Management, Entomology, Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology, and Plant Science.

"We are thrilled to have Sally at the helm of this exciting and important new Huck endeavor," said Andrew Read, director of the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences. "She is a brilliant scientist with a strategic mind, and innovator with a proven track record of doing game-changing work.

Mackenzie has served as Lloyd and Dottie Huck Chair for Functional Genomics at Penn State since August of 2017. She earned her PhD in Plant Molecular Genetics from the University of Florida, Gainesville, and worked as a professor in the Department of Agronomy at Purdue University. During her tenure at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she served as the Ralph and Alice Raikes Distinguished Chair for Plant Science as well as the founding director of the Center for Plant Science Innovation. She is the inventor of the epigenetic discoveries licensed to Epicrop Technologies in Lincoln, a company she cofounded.

"Sally Mackenzie’s research unveils the significant potential for agricultural research to address impending and sometimes paralyzing challenges, such as food insecurity and climate instability, with an elegantly straightforward solution," said Gary Thompson, Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Education for the College of Agriculture at Penn State.

Mackenzie’s research in epigenetics might hold the key to making crops more resilient in the face of climate change. Plants are comprised of a certain combination of genes whether they’re bred for a specific purpose or naturally inherit them through evolution; those genes have a range of capabilities in their expression. Epigenetics allows expression of the genes of a plant to be altered by the environment, a process that can be manipulated in the lab, resulting in trait enhancements that can be passed to future generations without changes in the DNA sequence.

For instance, this epigenetic reprogramming can enhance heat tolerance and create increased yields of 20-30% in tomatoes. These manipulations have been similarly effective in soybean and sorghum and should be applicable to a range of plant species. Crops can be manipulated to flower and fruit more uniformly and be more drought tolerant.

“Professor Mackenzie is a world-renowned plant biologist and a leader in the field of plant molecular biology and genomics, with a focus on the interactions between the nucleus and organelles (such as chloroplasts and mitochondria) and the effects of such interactions on plant development and responses to environmental challenges,” said Hong Ma, Professor of Biology and Huck Distinguished Research Professor of Plant Molecular Biology. “She studies a variety of plants including model systems and crops using a wide array of different technologies to probe gene functions that are important for complex cellular processes and to gain insights into regulations that can potentially impact agriculture and biodiversity.”

“Sally's vision for the new Plant Institute is highly ambitious, and we expect great things from her,” added Read. “She's exactly the kind of leader we love to see at the Huck—one who can bring the disciplines together through research that positively impacts society in a really big way."