Plant microbiome expert Jonathan Conway joins Princeton, bringing key insights into engineering "non-model" bacteria

Tuesday, Sep 28, 2021
by Scott Lyon

Jonathan Conway, an expert in plant-microbe interactions, has joined the Princeton faculty as an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering.

Conway brings key insight into manipulating microbiomes to study fundamental processes in plants and develop technologies for use in energy and food production. He joins Princeton from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where he was a postdoctoral researcher.

He said he found his footing as a young scientist in high school, in Lancaster, Pa., presenting projects to regional science fairs that took on topics in solar power, green chemistry and pasteurization. His interests in chemistry and biology only deepened as his career developed along a remarkably clear path, leading him first into energy-related problems in biomass and on to elementary questions at the interface of living plants and their microbiomes.

"There's still so much we don't understand about how biology works," Conway said. He pointed to the many mysterious and complex interactions that give rise to plant hormones, microbial competition and colonization, plant immune system signaling, and the ways in which microbes help plants survive stresses like drought or extreme temperatures. "There's a lot to do in the plant-microbe space."

As a graduate student at North Carolina State University, and as a postdoc at UNC, Conway became known for taming unwieldy enzymes and mentoring inchoate undergraduate researchers. He's most proud of the latter. His colleagues would even joke that he kept an army of undergrads, always coming and going from his bench. But Conway sees mentorship as a pathway to foster the generation of scientists and engineers who will change how we look at the environment and human health. He especially enjoys helping students get involved in independent research — guiding people to understand their strengths and interests and leading them through projects that end with published scientific papers.

"There's a line of teachers in my family," he said, rattling off the names of half a dozen relatives. "I guess I have that gene."

What he's done with bacteria has been no mean feat, either. In working with what scientists call non-model organisms — including bacteria that are not well studied in engineering contexts — Conway has to develop a lot of his own tools while also trying to use those tools to answer deep questions about a particular interaction. He might be engineering to discover gene function. Or he might be engineering to develop that function into a new application.

He has a reputation for persistence, having brushed aside bad advice to clone enzymes that were supposed to be "too long" to clone or move those enzymes across species in systems that, according to his detractors, shouldn't have worked.

"Sometimes people will tell you: You can't do that. Fortunately, sometimes I've not listened to that advice and pushed on to do something that maybe people thought couldn't be done."

That's where research gets exciting for Conway. He sees a wide open field in plant-microbe interactions, where the most thrilling discoveries are yet to come. Researchers in his new lab will focus on the basics of molecular biology and bacterial genetics as a foundation from which they can develop applications that have yet to be imagined.

"My lab group is going to work on both sides of the problem," he said. "Understanding those interactions and then trying to develop ways we can apply that understanding."