Thomas Jacobs


Associate Professor of Plant Biology
Associate Head of Plant Biology
Director of Graduate Studies
331 Edward R. Madigan Laboratory  MC-051
(217) 333-1518



NIH Postdoctoral Fellow, 1982, Stanford University
Ph.D., 1981, Michigan State University
M.S., 1976, Michigan State University
B.S. 1973, Stanford University



IB103, Introduction to Plant Biology (every Spring semester)
IB424, Plant Development (alternative Fall semesters)



Our research program is in plant developmental genetics and embraces two realities of the plant world. The first is that immense and complex genetic networks, not single genes, drive the internal mechanisms that generate plant structure and function. The second is that evolutionary processes have generated correspondingly rich variation in plant form and function as these networks have interacted with the planet's varied and changing environments.


We are applying this perspective to achieving a better genetic understanding of two features of plant biology that lie at the interface of ecology and development, both features ultimately arising from the control of cell proliferation, my laboratory's historical research focus. The first project recognizes that, because all animals ultimately obtain their energy from plants, a plant species courts extinction should it fail to accommodate the inevitability of animal predation or the loss of reproductive structures to abiotic insults such as freezing, wind, fire or trampling. Indeed, every non-extinct plant species, and in our work, Arabidopsis, relies at least in part on a surprisingly ubiquitous mechanism for replacing body parts sacrificed to hungry animals: loss of a primary inflorescence elicits the activation of axillary meristems that grow into buds that elongate into new inflorescences. Yet within the ubiquity of this developmental mechanism lurks a fantastic spectrum of global variation and nuance, evolutionarily mediated by chance, animal behaviors and additional factors. We are exploiting this rich variation using state-of-the-art methods of quantitative genetics and genomics to understand the underlying basis for plants' fascinating talent for self-reconstruction.


The second project begins with a recognition that plants draw from the increasingly concentrated reservoir of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere in order to synthesize the ingredients of the leafy meals upon which animals prey. Yet fluctuation in the abundance of this essential gaseous commodity is nothing new to plants, since we know carbon dioxode levels have varied widely over the half-billion years that vascular plants have dominated the landscape. It follows that all plants must harbor, within the evolutionary toolkit upon which their prospects for non-extinction depend, mechanisms to accommodate an inconstant supply of such an essential resource. In fact, a growing plant can gauge local carbon dioxode availability and tweak, on the fly, the number of leaf pores (stomata) it builds to absorb it. Again, we are exploiting natural genetic variation within a cosmopolitan collection of Arabidopsis accessions to dissect the underlying genetic mechanisms that drive this stunning ability of plants to adapt developmentally to environmental uncertainty, in this case the varying abundance of a resource essential for their growth, survival and performance of their pivotal role in fueling planetary ecosystems.


Both of these projects are interdisciplinary, driven by collaborations with colleagues steeped in ecology, statistical genetics and plant physiology. In addition, both projects are supported by a common methodological denominator: Genomics-empowered quantitative genetics of global species variation. This is a relatively new and underexploited approach to understanding genetic mechanisms of organismal function, while being eminently appropriate to our program. Among the specific experimental strategies we are pursuing includes an effort to construct complex, genetically structured plant populations that sample far greater species-wide variation than previously exploited by others pursing similar approaches using natural variation and quantitative genetics. Once developed, these genetic resources can fuel future, deep forays into a variety of evolutionary consequences of the interplay between plants and their varied and changing environments.




Haus, M.J., Kelsh, R.D. and Jacobs, T.W. (2015) Application of Optical Topometry to Analysis of the Plant Epidermis. Plant Phys. 169:1-14.

Sano, C.M., M. O. Bohn, K. N. Paige & T. W. Jacobs (2009) Heritable variation in the inflorescence replacement program of Arabidopsis thaliana. Theor. Appl Gen. 119:1461-1476.

Pomerening, J., Valente, L., Kinzy, T.G. and Jacobs, T.W. (2003) Mutation of a conserved CDK site converts a metazoan elongation factor 1Bb subunit into a replacement for yeast eEF1Ba. Mol Gen Genomics 269: 776-788