New UD faculty member Jesus Beltran sits in the lab and holds up a plant specimen in a glass case.
UD Plant and Soil Sciences faculty member Jesus Beltran studies genetics that makes plants act the way they do.

Meet our new faculty: Jesus Beltran

July 01, 2024 Story and photo by Katie Peikes

New University of Delaware faculty member Jesus Beltran grew up in a small town in Colombia. He was always fascinated by nature and agriculture. The South American town depended on coffee plantations, fruits and vegetables to drive employment and the local economy. Spending school breaks on farms ignited Beltran’s fascination with living things, likely influencing his decision to study biology.

As his career unfolded, Beltran recognized the importance and lack of access that many people had to fruits and vegetables in certain regions of the world. Early in his career, Beltran interned at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. He worked to improve pro-Vitamin A content in cassava plants, so that people living in the tropics could have access.

“It’s a global problem,” said Beltran, an assistant professor of plant and synthetic biology in the UD Department of Plant and Soil Sciences. “There is a deficiency of this vitamin in many populations. And that deficiency causes diseases.”

Beltran is interested in all things related to plant engineering. As a faculty member, he applies the knowledge and passion he developed for his hometown's agriculture to various kinds of plants. 

Improving plants requires a deep understanding of how they function, a complex process. 

During Beltran’s Ph.D. in the USA, he studied the functional mechanism of a new carotenoid enzyme from corn, which is now a candidate for metabolic engineering. 

“I believe that the combination of basic and applied research will ultimately drive innovation and foster the bioeconomy in a sustainable way,” Beltran said. “By understanding how plants regulate metabolic pathways, we can better position ourselves to make crops more nutritious and resilient.”

Beltran joined the UD College of Agriculture and Natural Resources in July 2023. He dives into the genetics that make plants act the way they do. He teaches students the basics of plant evolution as well as the concept of genetically engineering plants.

“I think students are impressed when they realize plants can be reprogrammed,” Beltran said, “that we can improve plants for the benefit of humans and for the benefit of the environment.”

Plants have a hard time withstanding drastic changes in the environment, from big temperature swings to flooding to drought. But Beltran said there is a solution: To engineer seeds with certain traits that can help plants tolerate the gamut of challenges imposed by climate change.

“If there is not enough water, the plants need to process that information and change the function of their genes, the cells and the biochemical pathways, so that they tolerate that stress,” Beltran said. “What we’re trying to do is use plant synthetic biology tools so that we are able to engineer those modules that already exist in plants, or engineer new modules so that we provide plants with new capabilities.” 

Ultimately, Beltran said, engineering those changes gives plants more of a chance at withstanding those stressors.

The end goal? To engineer seeds that are a jacks-of-all-trades.

“The more traits that we can engineer in a single plant, the better,” Beltran said.

Beltran, who runs his laboratory out of the Delaware Biotechnology Institute on the STAR Campus, designs “gene expression circuits”, which are basically impulses that can control cell behaviors. Once those circuits are incorporated into plants, they change the plants’ behavior in the way Beltran wants. The Delaware Biotechnology Institute gives him the state-of-the-art laboratories and equipment he needs to engineer plants’ biology.

“This year, we set up our lab in the Ammon Pinizzotto Biopharmaceutical Innovation Center (nicknamed AP-BIO) and initiated collaborations,” Beltran said. “I am thrilled to be part of the outstanding Department of Plant and Soil Sciences and look forward to contributing to its continued growth and profound impact on our communities. Delaware has a strong agricultural economy, which is why we are here developing innovative solutions.”

This past semester, Beltran taught Botany II (PLSC 201) to undergraduate students, teaching them about plant diversity and how different plants evolve. In the fall, he is excited to teach Plant Synthetic Biology (PLSC 467) to both undergraduate and graduate students. Students who enroll in the lecture-based course will learn all about genetic engineering to solve problems with plants.

“The course provides students with a theoretical framework that will be useful when they try to identify future careers,” Beltran said. “The agricultural industry is looking into biotechnology solutions. This course could put them in a position where they can discuss those high-tech projects.” 

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