Gabriela S. Schlau-Cohen

Gabriela Schlau-Cohen
Gabriela S.
Benjamin Franklin NextGen Award

Massachusetts Institute of Technology │ Cambridge, Massachusetts


For illuminating the fundamental chemical processes that protect plants from sun damage, thereby uncovering novel approaches to increase crop yields.

By collecting light energy from the sun and storing it as chemical energy through the process of photosynthesis, plants provide sustenance for most of the animals on our planet. But just as too much sun can be bad for humans, it can also be bad for plants, causing damage. To compensate, plants have evolved a sort of natural “sunscreen” to prevent them from absorbing too much solar radiation. Unfortunately, that same process can also limit the yield of food-producing crops. Finding ways around that limit by understanding the underlying mechanisms is an objective of Gabriela Schlau-Cohen’s research. 

Plants collect sunlight through specialized proteins called light-harvesting complexes (LHCs), which pass along solar energy to photosynthetic reaction centers inside the plant. When the sunlight is too intense and too much for the plant to handle, a protective mechanism kicks in, which allows the plant to absorb the strong light without incurring damage. The specifics of just how this sunscreening worked, however, have remained in the dark to biologists, largely because the process involved operates at such fast timescales that it’s extremely difficult to study. Schlau-Cohen is approaching the investigation of the phenomenon using the powerful tools of ultrafast and single-molecule spectroscopy, which allow her to study molecular-scale dynamics and interactions. 

She discovered that the photoprotective mechanism actually consists of two parallel but separate processes, one of them acting quickly and the other more slowly. In green algae and moss, these processes induce conformational changes in the involved proteins, changing the shape of the molecules to release excess energy through heat. Schlau-Cohen identified the proteins involved under different environmental conditions and characterized how they function.  

This new knowledge opens the door to some intriguing and exciting possibilities. Plants normally only use about 30% of the light they receive from the sun before these inbuilt photoprotective mechanisms switch on, but by engineering these processes, it may be possible to design plants that could use as much as 40% without any damage. This could significantly increase plant growth and available biomass, and ultimately, global crop yields.  Schlau-Cohen hopes that such an outcome could have a major impact on the projected shortfall between crop production and the predicted levels of worldwide food demand by 2050. 

Schlau-Cohen first became interested in chemistry as a high schooler growing up in suburban Philadelphia. She was especially fascinated with the quantum physics concept of wave-particle duality, the principle that particles of matter can behave as both a wave and particles at the same time. The wonder inspired by that idea, along with a very inspiring high school chemistry teacher, led her to major in chemical physics at Brown University. After getting her degree, she became a community organizer in New York for three years, an experience that confirmed her passion for social justice, before finally deciding to return to science. She moved west for graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley and post-doctoral work at Stanford University, beginning the research she continues today at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Although she is still in the early stages of her career as a professor at MIT, Schlau-Cohen’s highly creative research has already been recognized with a number of prestigious awards and honors, including the American Chemical Society Pure Chemistry Award, the National Institute of Health Director’s New Innovator Award, the Beckman Young Investigator Award, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science Marion Milligan Mason Award. She serves as associate director of the Bioinspired Light Escalated Chemistry Energy Frontier Research Center and has served on executive committees of divisions of the American Chemical Society and American Physical Society. 

Gabriela Schlau-Cohen has already established herself as an innovator both in her choice of research interests and the advanced techniques she brings to bear upon them. She is bringing a new approach and offering fresh hope to address one of the oldest and most basic problems of human civilization: making sure that all people have enough to eat. Along the way, she is also solving some long-standing questions in biology about the role and importance of the plant life that we animals all too often tend to take far too much for granted.