About Us

The BioDiscovery Institute (BDI) at the University of North Texas delivers research solutions to underpin the utilization of plants, forest products and other biomass for production of biopolymers, new bio-based materials for construction and transportation, bioactive small molecules and biofuels. The institute operates through a pipeline linking sustainable plant production platforms, metabolic engineering and the development of new materials.

BDI includes a multidisciplinary team of researchers committed to collaborating on large research projects with an emphasis on application of findings and solutions to meet market issues and needs.

Richard A. Dixon, Ph.D., director

Dr. Dixon, Distinguished Research Professor of biology, is a world-renowned specialist in metabolic engineering of plants. He was previously Distinguished Professor and Samuel Roberts Noble Research Chair, Senior Vice President and Founding Director of the Plant Biology Division at the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, Ardmore, Oklahoma, where he worked from 1988-2013. He received his Bachelor’s and Doctoral degrees in Biochemistry and Botany from the University of Oxford, UK, and postdoctoral training in Plant Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge, UK. He was awarded the Doctor of Science degree for his research achievements by the University of Oxford in 2004. His research interests center on the biochemistry, molecular biology and metabolic engineering of plant natural product pathways and their implications for agriculture and human health, and the engineering of lignocellulosic biomass for the improvement of forage and bioenergy feedstocks. He has published over 460 papers and chapters on these and related topics in international journals. Professor Dixon is a Member of the US National Academy of Sciences (Plant and Soil Sciences Section, elected in 2007), a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (elected in 2003), a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors (elected in December 2014), a member of the Editorial Boards of five international journals, and has been named by the Institute for Scientific Information as one of the 10 most cited authors in the plant and animal sciences.

Kent D. Chapman, Ph.D., associate director

Kent Chapman completed a B.A. degree in biology in 1986 from Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa. He then traveled Tempe, Ariz., where he earned a Ph.D. in botany (plant cell biology) at Arizona State University under the supervision of Richard N. Trelease for studies on peroxisome membrane lipids. After completing his doctoral degree, Chapman was awarded a 2-year NSF postdoctoral fellowship to study plant biochemistry with Thomas S. Moore, Jr., at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, La.. In 1993, he accepted a position as a tenure-track, Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at the University of North Texas. During the last 20-plus years, Chapman has developed an internationally-recognized research program in plant biochemistry and cell biology, specifically in the area of plant lipid metabolism. The Chapman lab has contributed more than 100 publications to the primary plant biology and biochemistry literature, and new ideas about the evolutionary conservation of lipid metabolism and function in eukaryotes have emerged from these efforts. With John Ohlrogge (Michigan State), Chapman proposed and chaired the inaugural Gordon Research Conference on Plant Lipids: Structure, Metabolism and Function in 2009 in Galveston Texas. Chapman is co-inventor on six patents (issued or pending), and in 2010 was recognized with an award for Outstanding Achievement in Intellectual Property at UNT. Chapman received the first ever Research Leadership Award at UNT for National and International Scientific Achievement in Research, and in 2010 was appointed Regents Professor of Biochemistry. In January, 2014, he took leave from UNT for eighteen months to serve as Program Director at the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Division of Integrative Organismal Systems. Chapman currently serves as Associate Director of the BioDiscovery Institute. He is Executive Editor for the journal, Progress in Lipid Research, and has a Guest Editor appointment with The Plant Cell.

Brian G. Ayre, Ph.D.

Research in my laboratory revolves around the phloem transport system of plants and how it functions as a whole-plant communication network to enable disparate organs to function as an integrated complete organism. Within this broad context, we have projects in two main areas: 1) The role of the phloem in coordinating carbon metabolism and nutrient utilization between photosynthetic source leaves and heterotrophic sink organs and 2) the role of the phloem in transporting signaling molecules from leaves to growing tissues to mediate source control of sink growth and development. Together, these trajectories contribute to our understanding of how plants control yield, biomass partitioning, and growth patterns on a whole-plant level. We approach our questions with modern tools in biochemistry, molecular biology and plant biotechnology, but always retain sight of the whole organism in our answers.

Rajeev K. Azad, Ph.D.

My research interests are in the area of Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, particularly developing and applying mathematical and statistical tools to decipher structural and functional features in genomes and elucidate their relationships in the context of evolution. I have developed novel computational methodologies for gene discovery, alien gene identification and genome comparison. Many of these methods and algorithms are based on probabilistic models that provide a rigorous theoretical framework for studying nucleotide ordering patterns within genomes and have proved powerful tools for biological sequence analysis. I have extensive training and experiences in computational genomics and transcriptomics, including differential gene regulation and genome evolution.

Rebecca Dickstein, Ph.D.

Rebecca Dickstein, professor of biological sciences, has long-standing research interests in symbiotic nitrogen fixation (SNF) in legumes with extensive experience in the model legume Medicago truncatula. Dr. Dickstein uses genetic approaches to study how the rhizobial symbiont infects host plant roots and what processes are essential in the latter stages of SNF. This work recently led the identification of several, as-yet unpublished, crucial putative transporters. It also led to the serendipitous discovery that expressing a specific transporter in plants leads to plants with enhanced growth. Dr. Dickstein has expertise in genetics, molecular biology, biochemistry and biotechnology. In addition to research, Dr. Dickstein teaches the large, cross-listed undergraduate and graduate course Biochemistry I: Macromolecular Structure and Function each fall. During spring semesters, Dr. Dickstein teaches a graduate course alternating between Advanced Molecular Biology, Signal Transduction and Biochemical Regulation and a Topics course in SNF. Dr. Dickstein was promoted to Professor in 2007, having started at the University of North Texas in 2000 as an Associate Professor with tenure. She was at Drexel University as Assistant Professor, then Associate Professor from 1990-2000. She holds a BS in Biochemistry from Pennsylvania State University and a PhD in Biochemistry from Johns Hopkins University. Her long-standing interest in SNF in legumes dates from when she was a PhD student investigating the expression of bacterial genes in eukaryotic organisms. She has actively participated in SNF research since her Post-doc work at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University from 1985 to 1989.

Ron Mittler, Ph.D.

Dr. Mittler is currently Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, University of North Texas. From 2003-2010, he served as Associate Professor in the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, University of Nevada. He obtained a B.A. (Cum Laude) and M.Sc. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; and a Ph.D. from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Honors include: The "Yigal Alon" Fellowship for excellent young scientists (1996-99); The "M. Landau" Research Prize for research on PCD in plants (1998); Rector's list of Excellent Teachers at the Hebrew University (1998-9); Jay Philips Foundation Academic Lectureship in Life Sciences (2001); “Cathedra” for excellent young scientists from the Technion (2000-02); Senior Scholar Program, College Distinguished Mentor (2005). CABNR Outstanding Research Award (2007); Thomson Reuters 2014 list of highly cited researchers (2014-5). Lady Davis Fellowship (2016).

Jyoti Shah, Ph.D.

Jyoti Shah is University Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of North Texas, Denton. He completed a B.Sc. degree in microbiology and biochemistry (1983) and his M.Sc. degree in microbiology (1985) from the University of Bombay (India). After two years conducting research in an industrial setting at Hindustan Lever Ltd in Bombay, he traveled to South Bend, Indiana where he earned a Ph.D. degree (1991) in biology at the University of Notre Dame under the supervision of Mary J. Clancy for his work on genetic factors regulating meiosis and sporulation in Saccharomyces cerevisiae. After completion of his doctoral degree, Shah joined Daniel Klessig’s group as a postdoctoral fellow to study plant defense signaling at the Waksman Institute (Rutgers University) in Piscataway, NJ. In 1998, he accepted a tenure-track position as Assistant Professor in the Division of Biological Sciences at Kansas State University where he rose to the rank of Associate Professor. In 2007, Shah was recruited to the University of North Texas, where he rose to the rank of Professor and was subsequently honored with the title of University Distinguished Research Professor. Over the past 20 years, Shah has developed an internationally acclaimed program in the area of plant defense signaling and the role of lipids in stress response. His lab pioneered work on developing tools to develop a model system for studying plant defense against aphids. In addition, his group discovered a novel signaling role for the diterpenoid dehydroabietinal in plant defense and the transition to reproductive development. Shah has applied these discoveries to develop strategies for enhancing resistance in wheat to the Fusarium head blight disease. Shah has contributed to more than 100 publications that have over 8000 citations. Shah’s research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the US Department of Agriculture and the US Wheat and Barley Scab Initiative.

Guido Verbeck, Ph.D.

Dr. Guido F. Verbeck, Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, is an expert is mass spectrometry, specifically instrument design and development. Dr. Verbeck received his PhD as a Proctor & Gamble fellow in chemistry at Texas A&M University. Dr. Verbeck has developed ion cyclotron resonance, time-of-flight, and ion trap mass spectrometers over the past 17 years, and has been a member of the analytical community for 22 years. Among this design portfolio, Dr. Verbeck has developed a miniature ion trap mass spectrometer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 3 preparative mass spectrometers for combing new materials and catalysts, and a number of novel analytical applications for single cell and forensic analysis. Dr. Verbeck’s appointment is currently at the University of North Texas where he continues to design novel ion optical devices for miniaturization, preparative, and analytical mass spectrometry, and he is the Director for the Laboratory of Imaging Mass Spectrometry.

Amanda J. Wright, Ph.D.

Amanda Wright is a plant cell biologist whose lab uses genetics and microscopy to research how plant cells orient their division plane during mitosis. Amanda received her bachelor's degree from Texas Tech University where she studied phyllostomid bat evolution and her PhD from Harvard University where she studied the role of microtubules in asymmetric cell division in C. elegans. After a short post doc at Harvard investigating RNAi in C. elegans, Amanda obtained a NIH-funded post-doctoral position in maize genetics with Laurie Smith at UCSD. Amanda started her lab at UNT in 2009 and was awarded an NSF CAREER grant in 2014. The Wright lab is pursuing two main avenues of research at this time. The first is a genetic screen to isolate new maize mutants with defects in division plane orientation. Interesting mutants will be characterized and cloned using next generation sequencing technologies. The second is an investigation into the role of microtubule severing enzymes (including katanin, spastin, and fidgetin) in maize cell biology and development.

Fang Chen, Ph.D.

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Dr. Fang Chen is a Research Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of North Texas. He serves as a Principal Investigator in the DOE BioEnergy Science Center (BESC) lead by Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He was a Research Scientist in the Plant Biology Division at Noble Foundation, Ardmore, OK, before join the UNT in 2013. Dr. Chen’s research focus is on plant cell biosynthesis, plant metabolic engineering and biotechnologies for sustainable agriculture and renewable energy.

Chenggang Liu, Ph.D.

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I earned my Ph.D. degree at the University of Texas at Austin and have worked as post-doctoral researcher on G protein signaling and miRNA biogenesis at the University of North Carolina and the Pennsylvania State University, respectively. In 2011, I joined Dr. Dixon’s lab to study the proanthocyanidin biosynthesis pathway in Medicago and alfalfa. In 2013, I moved to the University of North Texas and worked as a research assistant professor in Dr. Dixon’s lab.

Xiaolan Rao, Ph.D.

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Dr. Xiaolan Rao is currently a Research Assistant Professor in the BioDiscovery Institute at the University of North Texas. She obtained her Ph.D. in developmental biology from Wuhan University in China in 2011.  In 2012, she joined Dr. Dixon’s lab as a postdoc in the Plant Biology Division at Noble Foundation, Ardmore, OK. Since 2013 to 2016, she continued her post-doctoral research in the Department of Biological Sciences, University of North Texas. Dr. Rao works on bioinformatics, including application and development of next-generation sequencing pipelines for gene discovery in natural product biosynthesis, and integration and incorporation of large-scale molecular data sets to explore gene regulatory network in plants.

Antonella Longo, Ph.D.

Dr. Antonella Longo is currently a Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of North Texas, a position she holds since 2012. She obtained her PhD at the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy in 1996. After her PhD, she moved to the USA for post-doctoral studies that brought her to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill (1996-1998) and to the NIEHS in the Research Triangle Park (1998-2002). She had a joint faculty position between the Department of Molecular and Structural Biochemistry, NCSU, and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, UT-Battelle (2003-2011). She has been a member of the ORNL Neutron Scattering Science Review Committee since 2011. She also served in the SHUG (SNS and HFIR User Group) executive committee (2010-2014). Dr. Longo has successfully used x-ray crystallography to determine the structure of human transcription factors in complex with their target DNA. Since joining UNT, she has continued to work on human transcription factors but she has included transcription factors that are only present in plants. She also expanded her interest to characterize enzymes involved in the flavonoid metabolic pathway.

Roisin C. McGarry, Ph.D.

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Roisin McGarry is a Research Assistant Professor in the BioDiscovery Institute at the University of North Texas. Her research in plant development employs translational approaches to address crop improvement. Specifically, she uses cotton (Gossypium hirsutum), a substantial commodity crop, to identify and explore developmental mechanisms that can benefit productivity. Dr. McGarry obtained her BSc from the University of Lethbridge, Canada, MSc from the University of Alberta, Canada, and PhD from Cornell University. Her doctoral research was awarded a prestigious national scholarship from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. She conducted post-doctoral research with Dr. Brian Ayre at the University of North Texas, and pursued professional development leave with Dr. Friedrich Kragler at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology in Potsdam-Golm, Germany.

Mingxiong Pang, Ph.D.

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Dr. Pang is a Research Assistant Professor working in Dr. Ayre lab in the Department of Biological Sciences, University of North Texas. He earned a Ph.D. in plant physiology from the Institute of Botany of Chinese Academy of Science in Beijing in 1997 and another Ph.D. in Agronomy (Plant Genetics and Breeding ) in 2009 from New Mexico Sate University. He is working in Dr. Ayre’s lab for a sorghum project in which they manipulate flowering by engineering plant viruses to deliver gene(s) to benefit sorghum breeding. Previously, he worked as a postdoc for cotton fiber initiation and development through exploring potential microRNA functions in this important development at the University of Texas-Austin in Dr. Chen lab from 2008 to 2011. After relocated to Texas Tech University, he continued the research on cotton fiber initiation and development; and also collaborated with NCGI (http://www.ncgr.org) to assemble Gossypium arboreum and kirkii genomes in Dr. Thea A Wilkins lab. Before joining the University of North Texas, he worked at Chromatininc.com as a molecular biologist to help enhance sorghum breeding projects. He is very interested in bridging basic research with crop breeding to not only generate high impact journal publications but also cultivars for production.

Xiaoqiang Wang, Ph.D.

Dr. Xiaoqiang Wang is Research Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, University of North Texas. He received his Ph.D. in Structural Biology from the Institute of Biophysics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China in 1993. He worked as a research associate at the University of Manchester (UK, 1995-1996), and the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation (1996-1999). He was a research fellow in the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS)/National Institutes of Health (NIH) from 1999 to 2002. He was an Assistant Professor, Associate Professor and head of the structural biology laboratory in the Plant Biology Division, Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation from 2002 to 2014. His research interests include protein structure and design and engineering, plant natural products and biosynthesis, and enzyme-mediated drug metabolism and detoxification. He was awarded a federal grant by the National Science Foundation to study structure and function of glycosyltransferases involved in plant natural product biosynthesis, and was the first to solve the structure of a plant family I UDP-glycosyltransferase. He recently also obtained a NIH grant to engineer UGT71G1 for metabolizing an anticancer drug SN-38A. His research is providing a basis for understanding enzymatic mechanisms and biosynthetic processes towards manipulation of enzymes and biosynthetic pathways for improvement of plant, animal and human health. He has published original research articles in prestigious journals including Cell, Science, Molecular Cell, Plant Cell, Nature Structural Biology, and Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA.