John Cushman

Professor, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
john cushman


Research interests

  • Opuntia ficus-indica: A Highly Water-Use Efficient And Productive Biomass Feedstock For Semi-Arid Lands: The goal of this research to expand the use of cactus pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) as highly water-use efficient, highly productive, and climate-resilient biomass feedstock for semi-arid regions of the U.S. The major research goals are to: 1) develop molecular identifiers from complete chloroplast genome sequence information for resolving the genetic structure of the germplasm collection of O. ficus-indica to remove genetically identical accessions and resolved species designations; 2) evaluate available public germplasm collection of O. ficus-indica for biomass productivity under standard irrigation and fertilization conditions in the field; 3) evaluate elite germplasm for optimal water and fertilization inputs, refine productivity models, and perform life-cycle assessment (LCA) and life-cycle costing (LCC) analyses; 4) develop effective strategies to overcome barriers to production including overcoming Opuntia stunting disease (OSD) and supporting effective insect management programs for insect pests.  An innovative extension program will inform interested stakeholders about the benefits of cactus pear production systems in arid and semi-arid regions and to disseminate research results through public outreach and education.     
  • Genetic improvement and field testing of Tef: A forage, fodder, and highly nutritious, gluten-free grain crop for dryland agriculture: Tef (Eragrostis tef (Zucc.) Trotter, Poaceae) is a warm season, C4-photosynthesis grass that is gaining popularity in the U.S. as a high-quality forage, fodder, and highly nutritious, gluten-free grain. Tef productivity is limited by susceptibility to lodging due to its characteristic tall and weak stems, low seed production per unit area (or productivity), and small seed size. The long-term goals of the proposed integrated research and extension project are to accelerate E. tef domestication to suit U.S. agriculture needs through improving existing genomic resources, evaluating the agronomic performance of highly productive and drought tolerance accessions, and improving lodging resistance and overall grain yield.
  • Optimized crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM) engineering for improving water-use efficiency in plants: Crassulacean acid metabolism and tissue succulence are metabolic and anatomical adaptations that improve water-use efficiency and drought (and salinity) stress tolerance in plants. These traits are among the most widespread and successful adaptations in the plant kingdom for mitigating drought stress, and thus, represent highly useful traits for the design of climate-resilient crops. The goal of this project is to test optimized synthetic versions of crassulacean acid metabolism alone and in combination with engineered tissue succulence. The proposed synthetic gene circuits developed by this project can be applied widely to other food, feed, fiber, and biofuel crops to improve their productivity, reduce photorespiration, improve water-use efficiency, and drought/salinity stress tolerance under the hotter and drier environments of the future.

Our research is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institutes of Food, and Agriculture, and the Nevada Agricultural Experiment Station (NAES).

Students and postdoctoral research associates with broad interests in plant molecular genetics, plant biochemistry, and synthetic biology related to abiotic stress tolerance and food, feed, and biofuel production systems are welcomed to pursue training opportunities in this laboratory.


  • BCH/JOUR 496/696 - Scientific Communication Masterclass
  • BCH 703 - Grant Writing for Molecular Biosciences
  • BCH 705 - Molecular Genetics
  • BCH 706 - Functional Genomics
  • BCH 718 - Plant Molecular Biology and Biotechnology
  • BCH 794 - Plant Biochemistry Colloquium

Honors and awards

  • 2022 AAAS Fellow
  • 2017 Regents' Researcher Award
  • 2013 Outstanding UNR Researcher Award
  • 2011-2013 Foundation Professor
  • 2003 Outstanding CABNR Researcher Award


Guest editor, Annals of Botany; Handling Editor, Journal of Plant Physiology; Associate Editor, Journal of the Professional Association for Cactus Development; 


B.S. 1982 Ursinus College
M.S. 1984 Rutgers University-New Brunswick
Ph.D. 1986 Rutgers University-New Brunswick