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Hageman Lecturer

Michael Thomashow

Michael Thomashow

Plant Research Laboratory
Michigan State University

October 27-28, 2004

Lecture: "Gene Regulons and Regulatory Circuits Involved in Plant Cold Acclimation"
Colloquium: "Improving Plant Abiotic Stress Tolerance through Genetic Engineering"

About the speaker

Michael Thomashow began his research career as a microbiologist working with S.C. Rittenberg at UCLA. There he studied Bdellovibrios, which are parasites of E. coli. For a post-doctoral term he was in the lab of Eugene Nester, first speaker in this series. After obtaining tenure at Washington State University as a microbiologist, he moved to the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at Michigan State University, where he has been since 1986. In 2002 he was recognized with a MSU Distinguished Faculty Award. Last year he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and appointed a University Distinguished Professor.

Professor Thomashow was involved in key experiments that showed transfer of bacterial DNA into the host plant genome in crown gall (Agrobacterium) infections. He focused on more plants in the late 1980s and by 1990 he had successfully identified cold-regulated genes of plants. His group has published ~50 papers on cold regulated genes, mainly in Arabidopsis as a model system , but also in the bacterium S. meliloti. Recently he became director of a Center for Genomic and Evolutionary Studies on Microbial Life at Low Temperature, funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute. He has also served on various NASA grant panels, in particular those relating to Mars.

Professor Thomashow has been recipient of honors and awards including an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Award, election as a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, and most recently election as President-elect of the American Society of Plant Biologists. He has served on numerous editorial boards and national agency review panels, given congressional testimony on genetically engineered plants and this year chaired the organizing committee for a Keystone Conference on plant responses to abiotic stress.

Cold stress is a major factor limiting production of many crops at the edges of their adapted ranges. Increasing cold tolerance by only a few degrees or speeding acclimation by a few hours can make a large difference in the practicality of production in many areas. Professor Thomashow's group is undertaking systematic study of all the genes that respond to a cold stress or acclimation event. A number of transcription factors and regulatory regions have been identified and efforts are under way to describe the entire "wiring diagram" of the cold stress response.

Comparison of different species reveals variations in arrangements of networks but similar regulatory proteins. Transfer of "alien" genes, and alteration of gene expression have shown dramatic effects. They also raise "engineering" issues.