Andrew Binns

Dr. Andy Binns

Professor of Biology


Research Interests


B. A., Lawrence University, 1971

Ph.D., Princeton University, 1979

Post Doc Rockefeller University

Research Interests


Genetic and biochemical analysis of Agrobacterium-plant cell interaction

Agrobacterium tumefaciens is a gram-negative soil bacterium that has the unique capacity to transfer DNA from its resident Ti (tumor-inducing) plasmid, and proteins encoded by this plasmid, into plant cells. The transferred DNA (the T-DNA) is ultimately moved into the nucleus, integrated into the chromosomal DNA and expressed. T-DNA expression results in the production of i) growth factors that cause uncontrolled cell proliferation and ii) novel amino acid-sugar conjugates that cannot be metabolized by the plant cell but will serve as a carbon and nitrogen source for the inciting bacteria. Thus, Agrobacterium engineers the plant cell so that it proliferates indefinitely while producing nutrients that are dedicated to bacterial growth. This system can also be manipulated so that rather than transferring the wild type T-DNA the Agrobacterium will transfer any DNA cloned into an appropriate vector, thus allowing for routine genetic engineering of plants.

The research in our lab is focused currently on two major questions in relation to the Agrobacterium-mediated transformation process:

How are plant derived signals recognized and how does this recognition activate the expression of the virulence genes?

Initiation of plant transformation by Agrobacterium occurs when the virulence (vir) genes of the Ti plasmid are activated. This occurs as a result of the activities of a classic two component regulatory system. The sensor kinase (VirA), a membrane bound dimeric histidine kinase responds to plant derived compounds (certain sugars, phenolics and low pH) by phosphorylating the response regulator (VirG) which, in turn, activates transcription of the vir genes. We are particularly interested in how the different signals are recognized by and activate the VirA sensor kinase. Our recent studies have shown that a diverse set of sugars bind to a periplasmic protein (ChvE) that subsequently interacts with the periplasmic domain of VirA, resulting in an increase in the sensitivity of the system to phenolic derivatives produced by the plant. We have identified regions of ChvE that are necessary for sugar binding and regions that are necessary for activation of VirA.  We have also demonstrated that ChvE is part of an operon that encodes and ABC transporter that is involved in the utilization of sugars as carbon sources by Agrobacterium.  Currently, the structure of ChvE, bound to different sugars, is being solved and regions of the periplasmic domain of VirA that interacts with ChvE is being identified.  The ultimate goal of these studies is to understand how the binding of sugar-bound ChvE to the periplasmic domain of VirA results in the increase in sensitivity of this kinase to the phenolic molecules, which appear to be recognized by a cytoplasmic domain of VirA.

What is the spatial and temporal distribution of the plant derived signals and does this distribution provide information to the pathogen about the susceptibility of the nearby plant cells to the transformation process?

Agrobacterium recognizes an extremely diverse set of plant-derived molecules in the control of its virulence genes that are required for DNA transfer. We are currently utilizing a variety of  ChvE and VirA variants that are have either more or less restrictive signal binding properties, along with fluorescent protein reporters of vir gene expression, to address the following questions: 1) is the ‘promiscuity’ (in relation to signal perception) of the signal receptors related to the capacity of Agrobacterium to infect such a broad host range of plants and plant tissues? and 2) is the complexity of the signaling and the distribution of multiple signals within the plant – that is the signal landscape – related to the identification by the bacteria of plant cells ‘competent’ for tumor formation in contrast to competent for DNA transfer?  Together, these studies will correlate signal complexity in the host plant with two different aspects of the infectious process (vir gene expression and/or cell transformation) and answer the question of whether vir gene induction is the limiting factor for plant transformation.

Selected Publications

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Zhao, J. and A. N. Binns (2014). The GxySBA ABC transporter of Agrobacterium tumefaciens and its role in sugar utilization and vir gene expression.  J. Bacteriol. 196:3150-3159

Lin, Y.-H, Fang, F., Pierce, B. D. Wise, A. A., Binns, A. N. and D.G.Lynn (2014) Role of the VirA histidine autokinase of Agrobacterium tumefaciens in the initial steps of pathogenesis Frontiers in Plant Science 5:195. doi:10.3389/fpls.2014.00195

J. Hu, Zhao, J., W.F. DeGrado, A.N. Binns 2013.  Agrobacterium tumefaciens  recognizes its host environment using ChvE to bind diverse plant sugars as virulence signals. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 110:678-683  (epub 24Dec12)  

Zhao, J., and Binns, A.N. 2011.  Characterization of the mmsAB-araD1 (gguABC) genes of Agrobacterium tumefaciens.  J. Bacteriol. 193:6586-6596

Nair, G.R, X. Lai, X. A.A. Wise, W Rhee, M. Jacobs, and A. N. Binns. 2011. The integrity of the periplasmic domain of the VirA sensor kinase is critical for optimal coordination of virulence signal response in Agrobacterium tumefaciens  J. Bacteriol. 193:1436-1448

Wise., A. A., Fang, F., Lin, Y.H., He, F., Lynn, D.G., and A.N. Binns. 2010. The receiver domain of hybrid histidine kinase VirA: an enhancing factor for vir gene expression in Agrobacterium tumefaciens.  J. Bacteriol. 192:1534-1542

He, F., Nair, G.R., Soto, C.S., Chang, Y.C., Hsu, L., Ronzone, E., DeGrado, W.F., and Binns, A. N. 2009. Molecular basis of ChvE function in sugar binding and virulence in Agrobacterium tumefaciens J. Bacteriol. 191:5802-5813

Lynn, D. G. and A. N. Binns. 2008.  Control of virulence gene expression in Agrobacterium tumefaciens. In: Agrobacterium: From Biology to Biotechnology.  Eds: Tzvi Tzfira and Vitaly Citovsky. Springer Press;  pp 222-243

Yuan, Z,,   M. P. Edlind,  P Liu,  P. Saenkham, L. Banta, A. A. Wise,  E. Ronzone,  A. N. Binns, K. Kerr  and  E.W. Nester. 2007. Salicylic acid, important in regulating plant defense, directly shuts down expression of the vir regulon and activates quormone-quenching genes in Agrobacterium.  Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 104:11790-11795

McCullen, C. A. and A. N. Binns. 2006. Interactions between Agrobacterium tumefaciens and plant cells required for interkingdom macromolecular transfer.  Ann. Rev. Cell and Devel. Biol. 22:101-12