July 13, 2017

Undergraduate Summer Research in the Phillips lab

Summer research is in full swing in the Phillips lab. Thanks to the University of Toronto - Mississauga Research Opportunity Program, four UTM undergrads are acquiring practical research experience in my lab this summer. Each student is pursuing a fully independent research project in plant biology as part of the BIO299 summer research program. Here is a summary of their projects:

Alex Chang. Alex is learning bioinformatics techniques in a collaborative project with Prof. Adriano Senatore. Alex is assembling de novo transcriptomes for essential oil plants under study in the lab to identify new genes involved in essential oil biosynthesis.


Haniya Adnan. Haniya is engaged in the molecular cloning of essential oil genes from coriander using bioinformatics and homology based cloning approaches. In addition, she is conducting volatile metabolite profiling of commercial coriander cultivars.



Ibadat Bajwa. Ibadat is applying metabolomics techniques to the study of plant responses to environmental stresses using Arabidopsis. He has optimized an untargeted sample prep protocol for the analysis of primary metabolites by GC-MS.



Riya Bali. Riya is investigating the auxin biosynthetic pathway in the charophyte alga Chara. Using a combination of isotopic labeling, gene expression analysis, and LCMS/MS targeted metabolomics, she is attempting to resolve a long standing issue in the evolution of phytohormone evolution: where and when did plants evolve the ability to make and use auxins as growth regulators?


Matthew Bergman. A recent graduate in Biology at UTM, Matthew will soon begin his PhD program in the Phillips lab. This summer, he is investigating the biosynthesis of terpenoid essential oils in rose geranium (Pelargonium sp.) using whole plant labeling, molecular cloning, and volatile analysis.



Ransher Nain. Ransher is continuing the exploration of the origin of pyruvate in plant chloroplasts. Arabidopsis genetics, whole plant isotopic labeling, and LCMS/MS analysis of primary metabolites constitute his primary research activities in the lab.



Lucy Chen. As an outstanding lab volunteer, Lucy has maintained the Arabidopsis cultures, learned genetic screening of transgenic plants, and organized the lab during the startup period.

April 20, 2017

NSERC Discovery granted awarded to the Phillips lab



The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada has awarded the Phillips lab a 5-year Discovery grant. The title of my proposal is "Control of Flux and Adaptive Responses at the Interface of Primary and Secondary Plant Metabolism". This grant is the basic laboratory operational fund in Canadian natural science research. It represents an important step in establishing a well funded laboratory operation and opens the door to other NSERC funding opportunities. My thanks to the anonymous reviewers and colleagues who provided valuable feedback, especially Profs. Reuben Peters, Claudia Vickers and Steven Short.

April 4, 2017

My seminar at Brock University this Friday April 7

I will be giving a research lecture to the Department of Biological Sciences at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario this Friday, April 7, 2017.

The talk will take place at 2:15 in the Cairns building. The title will be "Investigating plant metabolism with whole plant isotopic labeling studies," which will cover highlights from my lab's research in primary and secondary terpenoid metabolism. This invitation is a special honor as it comes from none other than Prof. Vincenzo De Luca, a world renowned expert in plant natural products biochemistry and a monumental figure in the field.

Looking forward to meeting with the graduate students at Brock University, hearing about their research, and establishing collaborative efforts with the scientists in the department.

March 22, 2017

Our paper "Non-invasive ethylene quantification in attached fruit headspace at 1 part per billion by gas chromatography – mass spectrometry" accepted for publication in The Plant Journal

Our manuscript for measuring ethylene in attached fruit has been accepted in the "technical advance" category at The Plant Journal.

This paper goes a long way towards bringing high sensitivity ethylene detection into the labs of non-specialists who may only have access to a conventional single quadrupole GC-MS system. A creative "in situ" headspace sampling strategy together with several technical improvements and chromatographic trickery have led to a substantial improvement in sensitivity compared to more traditional GC-FID methods. With this technique, researchers can count on a level of sensitivity normally only achieved with a dedicated optical sensor, which comes with a host of technical problems all its own. Now we can enjoy the same sensitivity but with the robust performance of a mature technology like GC-MS.

Lead author Lara Pereira, completing her PhD at the Center for Research in Agricultural Genomics in Barcelona, Spain, when informed of the news, said: "Estoy contentísima!" Congratulations, Lara, and may there be many more.

This article will be available online in about two weeks. I will post a link to it here when it is available.

Update: Here is the link to the accepted online version.

John R. Evans Leaders Fund Awarded to the Phillips lab for plant metabolism research

I was recently named a John R. Evans Leaders Fund recipient and awarded $140,000 to fund infrastructure for my plant metabolomics platform.

The title of the project is "Control and adaptive responses of the plant metabolome".

This award will go towards the purchase of a triple quad - ion trap mass spectrometer, a versatile instrument that will be the centerpiece of the whole plant, isotopic labeling studies that make up the core of my research program.

Thanks to the UTM Department of Biology for their assistance in preparing my application and to Denise Durie in the UTM Procurement office for her help in navigating the public bid process to acquire this instrument.

Research and Scholarly Activity Fund grant awarded to Phillips lab

Back in January, the University of Toronto - Mississauga awarded me a small pilot grant to study essential oil biosynthesis in non-model plants.

The title of the project is: "New plant essential oil genes and their use in food safety".

Among the many uses of essential oils, some have potent anti-bacterial effects and are especially effective against food borne pathogens such as Listeria and Salmonella. The first step in elaborating a biotechnological approach to reducing food borne illnesses with essential oils is to elucidate their biosynthetic pathways in plants. This UTM-sponsered pilot grant is designed to pave the way for a larger industry-academic collaboration in the future.

Currently, student Matthew Bergman, working through the Research Opportunity Program, has been leading this project in the lab and will present his first results in a poster at the BIO481 undergraduate research symposium here on the UTM campus on April 4, 2017. Good luck, Matthew!

February 7, 2017

Undergraduate summer research at UTM

If you are an undergraduate enrolled at the University of Toronto and are interested in summer or fall research, I am offering several undergraduate research projects through the Research Opportunity Program.

Note: The ROP application deadline has been extended to Friday, March 3, 2017.

Here are the summer projects I will supervise:

December 4, 2016

Two PhD positions in plant biochemistry offered in my lab


Two PhD positions are available in my lab starting spring or fall 2017. Students must have previously completed a B.Sc. or M.Sc. in Biology, Botany, Chemistry, Biochemistry, or similar and be inspired to pursue original research in Plant Biochemistry. Canadian students are strongly encouraged to apply but international students with strong recommendations and transcripts will also be considered. The position includes a full research stipend for the entire duration of the PhD program. Students will also be expected to apply for scholarships and research funds, for which they will receive support and guidance. Any offer is contingent upon acceptance into the University of Toronto Cell and Systems Biology graduate program, to which interested students must apply.

Position 1: Control of carbon flux in plant metabolic networks. Using Arabidopsis as a model system, this research program will cover molecular, physiological, and bioanalytical approaches to advance our understanding of the control of plant metabolism. Modern metabolomics techniques will be the centerpiece of experimental work, and this student will be trained on the use of mass spectrometers coupled to gas and liquid chromatography. A strong interest in bioanalytical chemistry and plant molecular biology is needed, and a background in chromatography and mass spectrometry is helpful.

Position 2: Essential oil biosynthesis in glandular trichomes. This project uses molecular biology and whole plant physiology to address the formation of terpenoid essential oils in aromatic plants. Next generation sequencing, bioinformatics, molecular cloning, protein expression, and bioanalytics will form the basis of the skills acquired during this research project. A desire to learn gas chromatography - mass spectrometry is important, and a strong background in botany or plant physiology is helpful.

Interested students should send a CV, transcripts, and a cover letter to me at michaelandrew.phillips@utoronto.ca.

Update: The deadline for admission to CSB for Sept 2017 or Jan 2018 has closed for international students. Domestic students have until March 15 2017 to apply. More details can be found here.