Clay Wright, Ph.D. | October 6, 2023 | Virginia Tech


Dr. Clay Wright’s research aims to understand how signaling networks facilitate both plasticity and robustness in plant form and function and to harness this knowledge to engineer proteins, signaling networks, and biosynthetic pathways for applications in agriculture and biotechnology. He received a B.S. in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering from North Carolina State University prior to his Ph.D. in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering from Johns Hopkins University and a Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Departments of Biology and Electrical Engineering at the University of Washington. Clay joined Virginia Tech as Assistant Professor in the department of Biological Systems Engineering. The Wright Plant Synthetic Biology lab integrates approaches from synthetic and computational biology, protein engineering, bioinformatics, molecular evolution, and genetics to quantify signaling dynamics, genetic interactions, and functional relationships in plant signaling.


Humanity is faced with an enormous challenge in the coming decades. The world’s population is rapidly growing, and we need to produce enough food, fuel, medicine and goods to support this growth in an environmentally sustainable and restorative way. Plants will inevitably provide many solutions to the problems we face, but we need to build environmentally sustainable, carbon-negative industries as soon as possible. To accelerate the development of improved agricultural systems that can produce more while using less, we apply synthetic biology approaches to map sequence-function relationships in plant signaling pathways and reengineer them. Towards this end we have developed genetically encoded, ratiometric biosensors for the plant growth hormone auxin in the model yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae to reengineer how plants respond to this critical hormone. These biosensors have improved quantitative functional studies as well as directed evolution of plant auxin perception machinery. Additionally, these sensors can measure the production of auxin during different growth conditions and phases for S. cerevisiae, and may help us better understand auxin as an interkingdom signaling molecule. To effectively scale our reengineering efforts and expedite expansions to other signaling pathways we have recently developed open-source software for building plasmid and strain libraries using low-cost robotics.