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Breaking new ground in plant science

April 2, 2012

When Craig Pikaard entered college, he wasn’t considering a scientific career. He majored in horticulture and hoped to start a home and garden business with his father after graduation.

His plans changed as soon as he took a few college-level science courses. “I was enthralled by biochemistry and physiology classes,” recalls Pikaard.

That revelation turned out to be a boon for the field of plant genetics. Over the past two decades, Pikaard has made numerous discoveries about how plant cells silence gene expression. In 2011, he was selected by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation as one of the nation’s most innovative plant scientists. He is taking part in an initiative that boosts funding for fundamental plant science research. HHMI and GBMF are investing $75 million in the research program over five years.

HHMI and GBMF formed the collaboration because of concern that basic plant science research has long been underfunded. Both organizations say the investment is critical: According to the United Nations, today’s global population of nearly 7 billion people is expected to jump by 3 billion by 2050— and one billion people are already suffering from lack of nutrition. The demand for energy is rising, too, even as the long-term consequences of using fossil fuels become more apparent, thus increasing pressure on agriculture to grow fuel as well as food.

Pikaard is the Carlos O. Miller Professor of plant growth and development in the IU College of Arts and Science’s Department of Biology and Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry. He joins 14 other scientists as HHMI-GBMF investigators.

Pikaard’s IU Bloomington laboratory is focused specifically on the evolution of RNA polymerases, the enzymes responsible for decoding the information stored in chromosomes. He has previously discovered two enzymes that help transcribe DNA into RNA. He’s also shown that the pathway in which these enzymes work is involved in nucleolar dominance: a pathway in which short RNAs direct the addition of methyl groups to DNA, which effectively tags genes that are to be silenced.

Still, some of the most fundamental questions about the gene silencing behind nucleolar dominance have not been answered. Why doesn’t the cell just damp down both sets of genes equally? How does it tell the two sets apart? How and why does it choose one of them? “These are things we’re pursuing now,” Pikaard says.

Pikaard is encouraged and excited about participating in the new HHMI-GBMF program focused on fundamental plant science. “It will buy a lot of creative freedom,” he says, “by allowing me to focus more time on research and by making it financially possible to move the lab in new directions that mix genetics, genomics, cell biology, and protein biochemistry and that take full advantage of the amazing facilities we have here at IU.”

Although Pikaard moved to IU Bloomington in large part because its cutting-edge technological facilities are helping him answer his research questions, his green thumb still comes in handy as he and his team grow indoors all the plants his experiments demand.

“It’s keeping the bugs down that’s the hard part,” he says, laughing. “All the things we worry about in the garden happen in our growth room, too.”

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