How this plant scientist’s innovative research helps farmers address environmental challenges

Keith Slotkin (center). Photo courtesy of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center

By Bill Motchan, Special to the Jewish Light

Keith Slotkin often snips off some baby lettuce and microgreens from an indoor garden in the basement of his Kirkwood home. At his day job, Slotkin works on innovations in growing plants that could eventually benefit small farmers around the world. 

Slotkin, 42, is a Jewish St. Louis scientist and a member of the Danforth Plant Science Center. He is also an associate professor with the Division of Biological Sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia. 

One of his research projects is significant enough to have attracted $3 million in support from the National Science Foundation. If it’s successful, the research could arm farmers with critical information to make better decisions about growing food on a large scale. 

“What my research aims to do is improve the technology to manipulate crop genomes to produce plants that are improved and are better for the environment,” Slotkin said. “We want to do this with plants more efficiently so the whole world can use that technology.”

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His team is also studying the effects of carbon dioxide on plants. Climate change doesn’t just mean warmer temperatures, melting glaciers and rising sea levels. It also is responsible for an increase in CO2. Slotkin’s research will help predict the lasting effects of environmental challenges on a plant’s set of chromosomes (known as its genome) and growth. For example, if increased levels of CO2 create leafier, wider plants, farmers could plan ahead and plant their crops farther apart. 

“We are environmentalists who are futurists,” Slotkin said. “We try to build technology that is going to help solve a problem. That’s what the Danforth Center is really trying to develop—cutting-edge technologies to address key environmental agricultural challenges.”

One of the keys that unlock the mysteries of plants for Slotkin’s team is a phenomenon known as the transposon or transposable element. These are present in all living things, but some of them are troublemakers. 

“They’ve taken up residence in the DNA and now they’re just out for themselves,” Slotkin said. “They’re selfish. They want to copy themselves. They’re a little like computer viruses. That’s really what my lab studies.

“Where it really comes in with small farmers is when we put a piece of DNA into a plant that we’re trying to engineer. Here at the Danforth Center we’re trying to engineer cassava, a plant that is a major staple food of Africa. We can increase the nutrition by putting vitamin A genes into cassava.”

Aside from the science, Slotkin said just being around plants is a calming experience and working at the Danforth Center is an ideal environment. 

“There’s such an incredible greenhouse complex here,” he said. “I still really enjoy just walking through them, pre-COVID. There are so many cool plants and so many cool different projects here.”

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Slotkin’s strolls through the Danforth Center greenhouses have been limited. Outside of his lab, Slotkin has a vegetable and flower garden at home, just like many of us who are getting ready to plant herbs and tomatoes in the coming weeks. The difference is, he intimately knows what’s going on from the root to the leaves.

His interest in plants dates back to childhood. When Slotkin was just 11 years old, he recalls helping his mother landscape in front of her house in Michigan. After high school he earned a bachelor’s of science degree from the University of Arizona and a Ph.D. from the University of California Berkeley. 

Slotkin was recruited by the Danforth Center two and half years ago. Shortly after arriving in town, he attended a leadership seminar at Washington University, where he met Fran Poger, past chairman of the St. Louis Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum.

“That really helped us in the Jewish aspect of our lives,” Slotkin said. “Fran immediately began telling me about the different synagogues and resources, and before that we didn’t have a good footing in St. Louis so that really set us off on the right course.”

He and his wife Amy Gottesman and their daughters Ruby (11) and Hazel (8) are members of Congregation Temple Israel. The Slotkin family and the Temple Israel community were a perfect match, according to Senior Rabbi Amy Feder. 

“Both Hazel and Ruby are adored by our teachers and their peers, and it’s hard to remember they’ve only been here for a few years,” Rabbi Feder said. “Keith and Amy have been especially active at TI through their girls, and it’s wonderful to see those connections grow. It’s wonderful to have a leader like Keith who is so committed to tikkun olam.”

In a few short years, Slotkin has already made a significant impact on plant research, according to Jim Carrington, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.

“It’s really important to understand what our mission is—it’s to improve the human condition through plant science and I’m very proud that Keith is on the team at The Danforth Center because he’s a major contributor,” Carrington said. “He’s a leader in the in the broader community of plant scientists. Another area that he is leading in is in training the next generation of scientists. He has graduate students in his group who are national and international post-doctoral trainees.” 

Slotkin said working with students is one of the most rewarding parts of his work because those future scientists will continue making advances in plant science.

“When I see new students that come into the lab, they don’t have control of the language that we speak as scientists and then in a couple of years, they’re leading the laboratory and doing cutting-edge research,” he said. “I’ve produced a number of scientists that are now faculty members at other institutions and universities. That is incredibly rewarding to watch the development of a scientist like that and say hey, I had a little part in doing that and providing this person the platform that they need to develop into a scientist.”