Dr. John G. Jelesko

School of Plant & Environmental Sciences

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.


Recent Relevant Publications

Jelesko J.G., E B Benhase, J N Barney. 2017 Differential Responses to Light and Nutrient availability by Geographically Isolated Poison Ivy Accessions. Northeastern Naturalist, 24:191-200.

Kasson, M.T., J.R. Pollok, E.B. Benhase, and J.G. Jelesko, 2014, First Report of Seedling Blight of Eastern Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) by Colletotrichum fioriniae in Virginia. Plant Disease, 98: 995-996.

Zhao, B., F. A. Agblevor and J. G. Jelesko (2014). “Enhanced production of hairy root metabolites using microbubble generator.” Plant Cell Tissue and Organ Culture 117: 157-165.

Dornfeld, C., A. J. Weisberg, C. R. K, N. Dudareva, J. G. Jelesko and H. A. Maeda (2014). “Phylobiochemical Characterization of Class-Ib Aspartate/Prephenate Aminotransferases Reveals Evolution of the Plant Arogenate Phenylalanine Pathway.” Plant Cell 26: 3101-3114.

Benhase, B., and Jelesko, J. G. 2013, Germinating and Culturing Axenic Poison Ivy Seedlings. HortScience, 48:1-5.

Zhao, B., Agblevor, F., and Jelesko, J. G., 2013, Enhanced production of the alkaloid nicotine in hairy root cultures of Nicotiana tabacum L., Plant Cell, Tissue & Organ Culture, 113:121-129..

Price, M. B., Jelesko, J., Okumoto, S., 2012, Glutamate receptor homologs in plants: Functions and Evolutionary Origins, Frontiers in Plant Traffic and Transport, 3:235.

Jelesko, J. G., 2012, An expanding role for purine uptake permease –like transporters in plant secondary metabolism, Frontiers in Plant Physiology, 3:78.

Hildreth, S. B., Gehman, E. A., Yang, H., Lu, R.-H., K C, R., Harich, K., Yu, S., Lin, J., Sandoe, J. L., Okumoto, S., Murphy, A., Jelesko, J. G., 2011, A tobacco nicotine uptake permease affects alkaloid metabolism., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U.S.A., 108:18179-18184.