Five Questions for Jason Londo
Jason Londo grew up in the rural upper peninsula of Michigan, where he fell in love with plants from a very early age. He attended college at Florida Tech in Melbourne, FL to study molecular biology, because he thought that the world of agriculture would be dramatically changed by transgenic plants. After that, Jason went to graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis to study plant biology, where he did his thesis on aluminum tolerance and phylogenetics in wild and domesticated rice. He then did postdoctoral research on transgene movement in canola with the EPA Western Ecology Division and the University of Arkansas. In 2011, Jason was hired at USDA-ARS and as an associate adjunct professor at Cornell. Most of his current research is comparative and has strong links to natural adaption in plant populations.
What inspired you to work in grape genetics?
I’ve always been interested in trying to understand how plants survive. I studied rice and canola before grapevine but my inspiration has been rooted in how plants adapt to stress, specifically environmental stress. When the opportunity came along to study a crop as cool as grapevine, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Grapevine is so interesting! Firstly, it is one of only a very few agriculturally cultivated lianas (vines). In the wild, the grapevine canopy can be hundreds of feet from the roots, yet still has to “talk” to all its parts throughout the year. We force this vine to grow like a bush and try to understand how it responds in the vineyard. It is a crop that is preferentially cloned, so the vines are genetically thousands of years old. We put this genetically frozen plant in hundreds of different stresses, from the Mediterranean, to the humid Midwest, to the frigid North. All that climate variation, and we ask it to produce a consistent and specific product, all within the human context of “quality”. Then you add to that the fact that you can graft grapevines, making chimeras between two individuals. Fascinating.
To what degree/how has research in your field changed since you started in it?
I’ve worked with USDA for 7 years now and my research field is abiotic stress physiology and genetics, specifically for cold hardiness. That’s a pretty huge field description, I use everything from field observation, to molecular biology in the lab, to studies on specific genes. The biggest change has been how much genetic data we can gather; whole genome data, all the genes expressed in the plant, all the proteins and metabolites. Every step forward we are shown a whole new, huge, set of interacting factors. Another major step forward has been the use of high-throughput phenotyping. With computers, drones, and sensors, we can measure so many more aspects of how grapevine interacts in the environment.
What projects are going on in your lab right now?
Right now my research projects focus on understanding how vines measure and react to temperatures in the fall, winter, and early spring. We are using field and freezer data to measure changes in cold hardiness in different grapevine cultivars. One of the coolest recent projects was a discovery by my student Al Kovaleski. He discovered how to measure when a vine becomes responsive to warm temperatures. Using this new phenotype, we hope to genetically map the loci responsible for loss of cold hardiness. Other projects in the lab include looking at how hormones control budburst, how gene expression changes in the dormant bud when temperatures rapidly change, and how the rootstock interacts with the scion and alters plant physiology. I also am an active member and Co-PI on the VitisGen 2 and VitisUnderground projects.
How will your research benefit the grape industry?
My hope is to provide the grape industry a set of both short and long term benefits. To be honest, it will be difficult to make grapevine more cold hardy. The trait is so complex and so dependent on climate that it will be very hard to make current V. vinifera varieties hardier. I work closely with Bruce Reisch to help choose cold hardy wild grapes for breeding efforts, but that process take a very long time. However, in the short term we are learning about specific tricks we might be able to try to increase cold hardiness in grapevine through viticultural manipulation. Our research suggests we might be able to increase hardiness through vineyard sprays or use of specific wavelengths of light to shut down vines early in the fall, giving them more overall cold hardiness. Similarly, we are testing out ways to control how fast vines respond to heat in mid-winter to delay loss of hardiness and prevent early budbreak. Finally, everything we learn can be added into current predictive models of cold hardiness and phenology. By making predictions more accurate, we hope to help farmers choose when extra effort is most beneficial.
What was the best piece of research advice you have receive?
I guess I’m not sure how to answer this, because I’m always learning new, critical aspects of what it means to do research as a career. The best advice from graduate school is to don’t be afraid to fail. If you are afraid to afraid to try something crazy, you don’t make much progress. We should all be excited when experiments fail, it teaches you to be adaptable. As a postdoc, when you feel like nothing is working, step away from the problem. Get a beer (now its wine), go for a walk, change the scenery. Now in this position, I guess it would be collaborate with other scientists, specifically ones you get along with. The faster you realize that you can make much more progress as a team, the better.