Common expressions such as “rise to the challenge” were born from industrious and driven people like Xueyi Xue, a Postdoctoral Researcher with the Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation (CABBI).

Xue, with his wife and two young children, ventured from China to New Jersey to central Illinois to follow the family’s passion for science and education. He was always intrigued by biotechnology and natural biodiversity — and how those two seemingly separate subjects matter need one another. He earned his B.S. in Biotechnology from Shandong Agricultural University in China and went on to receive his Ph.D. in Genetics from the Institute of Plant Physiology and Ecology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, in Shanghai.

A researcher's hands are pictured using a syringe.“I’ve always been passionate about science. I think what drew me to it is my curiosity and desire to explore the unknown,” he said.

He joined CABBI in July 2018, working on Li-Qing Chen’s Feedstock Production team. Part of his research involves studying sorghum — a hearty Midwestern grass that’s showing promise in the bioenergy sphere. Once with CABBI, he was thrown right into the thick of farm life, a new landscape for him.

“Once I started, we were out at the Energy Farm a lot,” he said. “The Feedstock theme members had already planted the sorghum, so at the beginning of August, we started to collect the sorghum samples from the fields.”

Once the samples are collected, they are dissected and processed.

“We do manipulation like decapitation and defoliation on the sorghum,” Xue said. “Decapitation means we remove the heads (panicle) from the sorghum plants and in defoliation treatment we remove the leaves.”

CABBI researcher Xueyi Xue studies a notebook in the lab.Breaking down the sorghum is essential to discovering what is happening in different parts of the plant. Xue is investigating both “sink” and “source” tissues to determine sugar production and allocation in the bioenergy crop. Sugars move from source tissues, like leaves, to sink tissues like roots and stems. Source tissues fix carbohydrates through photosynthesis, which are sent out to sink areas, which need those nutrients to grow.

“The stem is the main sink tissue we focus on in sorghum — they accumulate high level sucrose there. When we remove the head, we remove the source tissue. Removing the leaves means we reduce the source tissue and the photosynthesis, which will result in less sugar accumulation,” he said. “We use this kind of manipulation to try to study how the sorghum plants will respond to the sudden breakdown in the balance between the sink and source tissue. Hopefully using this strategy, we would identify the key regulators modulating sink-source communication.”

Xue splits his time between the Energy Farm fields and the laboratory. It’s a full-circle process collecting sorghum, breaking it down, isolating RNA and nutrients, analyzing the data, and then manipulating the sorghum’s genetic makeup in Lab 1200 at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB).

The end goal of Xue’s research is to understand how sorghum responds to sink-source balance breakdown.  A better understanding of sugar allocation in plants like sorghum, and a more robust understanding of how and where to make genetic adjustments, could have a major impact on a more sustainable bioenergy economy.

“We want to determine how to [genetically] modify the sorghum,” he said. “(CABBI wants) more sugar for bioenergy.”

Xue had never worked with sorghum before starting his CABBI post — a testament to his adaptability.

“The first time I had ever worked with this crop (was) when I was out in the field with it,” he said. “It takes some time to learn about, it’s quite different from my previous research area.

“I wanted to accumulate the experience with this crop. Before I joined CABBI, I had no experience working with these types of crops. It’s a new challenge.”

But he’s risen to it.

“I’m excited to find and learn new things. I like to do this kind of (CABBI) research. The organisms that I work with are some of the most complex systems in the world.”

— Article and photos by Jordan Goebig, former iSEE Communications Specialist