Richard D. Vierstra

Professor of Biology
George and Charmaine Mallinckrodt Professor of Biology

contact info:

mailing address:

  • CB 1137
  • ST. LOUIS, MO 63130-4899
image of book cover

​Professor Vierstra’s research interests include: (1) pathways used by plant and animals to selectively degrade intracellular proteins, which are central to many human diseases and important contributors to the genetic engineering of plants with increased agricultural productivity; (2) post-translational modifications involved in plant stress defense; and (3) mechanisms used by plants to perceive their light environment.

Light is essential to plants, providing both the necessary energy for growth and signals to entrain their life cycles to the daily and seasonal rhythms. To perceive this signal, plants employ a family of red/far-red light-absorbing photoreceptors called phytochromes.

The Vierstra Lab is attempting to understand how phytochromes work at the atomic level, using a variety of structure-based approaches such as X-ray crystallography and single-particle electron microscopy with both plant and microbial versions. An emerging model is that light excitation triggers an isomerization of the bilin chromophore, which induces dramatic changes in the protein that alter signaling. Based on this model, the lab is now trying to re-engineer phytochromes as a novel strategy to improve agricultural yield and sustainability.


recent courses

The Secret Lives of Plants

This course is designed to familiarize undergraduate students with the fascinating lives of plants, their evolution, their remarkable structural and morphological diversity, how they grow, and how they have been modified to feed the planet. Topics include: how plants can survive with just water, minerals and light, how they transport water astonishing distances, their unusual sex lives, why they make seeds, how they can grow nearly forever, how plants survive extreme environments without running to hide, why they synthesize caffeine, nicotine, THC and opiates, how they defend themselves from pathogens without an immune system, how they sense their environment without dedicated sensory organs, how plants have been modified by humans to provide food, fiber and fuel, and how genetically modified (GMO) crops are made and their implications to the environment and society. Overall goals are to enhance an understanding and appreciation of the plant kingdom, to help young scientists understand the primary scientific literature, and as a starting point for possible careers in plant biology. Class includes field trips to the Missouri Botanic Gardens and a local plant biotech company/institute. Where appropriate, the class will also emphasize key differences between plants and animals. This course is primarily for first-year students interested in majoring in biology, with a possible emphasis on plants. This course is also for those that want to know more about where their food comes from, how these amazing creatures survive and flourish, and how GMO crops are engineered. Upper-level students with an interest in food and sustainable agriculture but not necessarily focusing on plants will also be welcome.

    Current Approaches in Plant Research

    This course is designed to introduce graduate students to contemporary approaches and paradigms in plant biology. The course includes lectures, in-class discussions of primary literature and hands-on exploration of computational genomic and phylogenetic tools. Evaluations include short papers, quizzes, and oral presentations. Over the semester, each student works on conceptualizing and writing a short NIH-format research proposal. Particular emphasis is given to the articulation of specific aims and the design of experiments. Students provide feedback to their classmates on their oral presentations and on their specific aims in a review panel.

      Selected Publications

      The proteasome stress regulon is controlled by a pair of NAC transcription factors in Arabidopsis. Gladman, N.P., R.S. Marshall, K.-H. Lee, and R.D. Vierstra (2016) Plant Cell (in press).

      Defining the SUMO system is maize: SUMOylation is up-regulated during endosperm development and rapidly induced by stress. Augustine, R.C., T.C. Rytz, S.L. York, and R.D. Vierstra (2016) Plant Physiol. (in press).

      Crystal structure of Deinoccocus phytochrome in the photoactivated state reveals a cascade of structural rearrangements during photoconversion. Burgie, E.S., J. Zhang, and R.D. Vierstra (2016) Structure 24: 448-457.

      Morpheus Spectral Counter: a computational tool for quantitative mass spectrometry using the Morpheus search engine. Gemperline, D.C., M. Scalf, L.M. Smith, and R.D. Vierstra (2016) Proteomics 16: 920-924.

      Spotlight: Ubiquitin goes green. Hua, Z., and R.D. Vierstra (2016) Trends Cell Biol. 26: 3-5.

      Autophagic recycling plays a central role in maize nitrogen remobilization. Li, F., T. Chung, J.G. Pennington, M.L. Federico, H.F. Kaeppler, S.M. Kaeppler, M.S. Otegui, and R.D. Vierstra (2015) Plant Cell 27: 1389-1408.

      X-ray radiation induces deprotonation of the bilin chromophore in crystalline D. radiodurans phytochrome. Li, F., E.S. Burgie, T. Yu, A. Heroux, G.G. Schatz, R.D. Vierstra, and A.M. Orville (2015) J. Amer. Chem. Soc. 37: 2792-2795.

      Autophagic degradation of the 26S proteasome is mediated by the dual ATG8/ubiquitin receptor RPN10 in Arabidopsis. Marshall, R.S., F. Li, D.C. Gemperline, A.J. Book, and R.D. Vierstra (2015) Mol. Cell 58: 1053-1066

      Crystallographic and electron microscopic analyses of a bacterial phytochrome reveal local and global rearrangements during photoconversion. Burgie, E.S., T. Wang, A.N. Bussell, J.M. Walker, H. Li, and R.D. Vierstra (2014) J. Biol. Chem. 289: 24573-24587.

      Crystal structure of the photosensing module from a red/far-red light-absorbing plant phytochrome. Burgie, E.S., A.N. Bussell, K. Dubiel, J.M. Walker, and R.D. Vierstra (2014) Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 111: 10179-10184.

      Autophagy-related (ATG)11 plays an essential role in non-selective autophagy and senescence-induced mitophagy in Arabidopsis. Li, F., T. Chung, and R.D. Vierstra (2014) Plant Cell 26: 788-807.

      Phytochromes, atomic perspectives of photoactivation and signaling. Burgie, E.S., and R.D. Vierstra (2014) Plant Cell 26: 4568-4583.

      Epigenomic programming contributes to the genomic drift evolution of the F-Box protein superfamily in Arabidopsis. Hua, Z., J.E. Pool, R.J. Schmitz, M.D. Schultz, S.-H. Shiu, J.R. Ecker, and R.D. Vierstra (2013) Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 110: 16927-16932.

      Quantitative proteomics reveal factors regulating RNA biology as dynamic targets of stress-induced SUMOylation in Arabidopsis. Miller, M.J., M. Scalf, T.C. Rytz, S.L. Hubler, L.M. Smith and R.D. Vierstra (2013) Molec. Cell. Proteomics 12: 449-463.

      Structure-guided engineering of phytochrome B with altered photochemistry and light signaling. Zhang, J., R.J. Stankey, and R.D. Vierstra (2013) Plant Physiol. 161: 1445-1457.

      Advanced proteomic analyses yield a deep dataset of ubiquitylation targets in Arabidopsis. Kim, D.-Y., M. Scalf, L.M. Smith, and R.D. Vierstra (2013) Plant Cell. 25: 1523-1540.

      A photo-labile thioether linkage to phycoviolobilin provides the foundation for the unique blue/green photocycles in DXCF cyanobacteriochromes. Burgie, E.S., J.M. Walker, G.N. Phillips Jr, and R.D. Vierstra (2013) Structure 21: 88-97.