Plant reproductive success in nature and crop yield in agriculture relies on flowers, which are the foundation for fruit and seed production. Flowers develop from inflorescences, reproductive branching systems that originate from leaf-producing vegetative shoots when environmental and endogenous signals induce small populations of stem cells at the tips of shoots known as meristems to transition into reproductive states. The number of inflorescences produced on a plant, as well as how many branches and flowers form on each inflorescence, can vary dramatically both within and between species. At the center of this diversity lies two critical processes of stem cell regulation that are the focus of research in the lab: i) maturation, during which stem cells transition from a vegetative to a reproductive growth program, and ii) proliferation, which controls stem cell population size.
Our research program integrates development, genetics, genomics, and gene editing to explore mechanisms of meristem maturation and maintenance and their relationship to plant shape, flowering and flower production. We take advantage of extensive natural and mutant variation in inflorescence production and architecture in tomato and related nightshades to explore how differences in these processes explain the remarkable diversity in inflorescence production and complexity observed in nature and agriculture. Recent discoveries on these topics have led us to broader questions on the significance of genomic structural variation, gene redundancy, and epistasis in development, domestication, and breeding. Based on our fundamental discoveries, we are developing and applying innovative concepts and tools for crop improvement.