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Dr. John Jelesko

FACULTY AFFILIATE   |   Global Change Center

School of Plant & Environmental Sciences

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(540) 231-3728  •


My research program seeks to understand the molecular biology and evolution of plant specialized metabolism responsible for producing valuable chemicals.  Historically, plants were the source for economically important medicines and materials used in manufacturing (fibers, wood, gums, resins, adhesives, etc).  In recent decades synthetic materials have eclipsed the use of natural products in the manufacturing of most goods.  This was made possible by plentiful inexpensive geo-petrochemical feed stocks.  However, as geo-petrochemical reserves inevitably decline, the demand for chemical feed stocks to supply the manufacturing domain will only increase.  The diverse metabolic potential of plants combined with computational biology, genetic, and synthetic biology technologies hold tremendous opportunities for sustainable chemical feedstock production for use in the pharmaceutical and manufacturing domains of the economy.


Molecular biology and chemical ecology of alkylphenols.  Alkylphenol Urushiol is the chemical responsible for the classic irritating rashes after contact with poison ivy/oak/sumac plants.  Urushiol-like alkylphenol compounds are produced by other members of the Anacardiaceae including mango, cashew, pistachio, and the Japanese lacquer tree.  Studies recently showed that increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels result in increased poison ivy invasiveness and production of more noxious forms of urushiol.  Despite the predicted increase in poison ivy invasiveness and toxicity due to climate change, astonishingly little is known about poison ivy ecology and urushiol biosynthesis.  Therefore, my group recently began foundational studies focused on poison ivy ecology and the molecular biology of urushiol production.  We are interested in the long term goal of using synthetic biology methods to produce urushiols suitable for high-value material science applications.

Fungal biocontrol of weedy and invasive alkylphenol producing plants.  We have identified a native fungal species responsible for severe wilting of poison ivy seedlings, but is otherwise an endophyte on common forest plant species.  Interestingly, this same fungal species is reported to be an entomopathogen on an invasive exotic insect of hemlock forests.  The molecular basis of for this intra-phyla pathogenesis profile is a topic of interest.  This fungus provides new opportunities for safe fungal biocontrol of emerging poison ivy and exotic invasive Anacardiaceae species in managed landscapes and recreation areas.

Current Projects

“Identification of Poison Ivy Urushiol Biosynthetic Genes Using RNAseq” – this project is funded by the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute & Fralin Life Science Institute Small Grants Program and is aimed at developing informatic resources enabling the identification and cloning of urushiol biosynthetic genes.