Hageman Lecturer in Agricultural Biochemistry

James Birchler

Dr. James Birchler

Curators' Professor of Biological Sciences
Division of Biological Sciences
University of Missouri, Columbia
Member, U.S. National Academy of Sciences

April 18-19, 2012

Lecture: "Development and Potential Applications of Engineered Minichromosomes in Plants"

Colloquium: “Food in the Future: harvesting the fruits of natural and synthetic genetic diversity"

About the speaker

James A. Birchler obtained his B.S. in Zoology and Botany at Eastern Illinois. He has maintained an interest in both of these areas, doing detailed genetic studies of two model organisms, maize and fruitflies (drosophila). Both areas of research are supported by major grants, from NSF and NIH respectively.

Professor Birchler’s PhD work on maize at Indiana University led to a very interesting discovery of gene dosage compensation. Increasing the number of chromosome (pieces) carrying a structural gene did not lead to more of the enzyme activity in a cell; the chromosome fragment also carried an inverse regulator. Remarkably, the same effect was later shown to hold true in drosophila for the same gene, adh. This phenomenon is a general one with very broad implications for gene regulation in polyploids, or transgenic organisms. Gene balance is a critical modulator in networks with protein complexes, such as signal cascades and transcriptional activators.

Jim Birchler has had a colorful career, beginning with the apricot allele of the white locus, including purple, peach/pink, brown and scarlet, and capping off with chromosome painting for karyotypic analysis. He is a recognized expert in maize cytogenetics and has applied fluorescent in situ hybridization (FISH) for the soybean karyotyping also. He continues a long tradition of maize cytogenetics at MU, that began with Lewis Stadler and Barbara McClintock. They depended on recognition of banding and bending and knobs. He has been able to paint the chromosomes, yielding “Maize by Monet.” Along the way he has published about 120 peer reviewed papers, 100 invited chapters and a patent on maize artificial chromosomes. Artificial chromosomes are the subject of this year’s Hageman lecture. Engineering an additional chromosome into an organism opens up enormous possibilities for using recombinant DNA strategies to engineer desirable traits.

Professor Birchler was honored with the title of Curators' Professor in the Division of Biological Sciences at University of Missouri, Columbia in 2009 and became a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 2011. He has been recognized as one of the “Teaching Legends of Mizzou”, and served as mentor to at least three dozen undergraduates, 15 graduate students and more than 30 post-doctoral fellows and associates.

In addition to university duties, Dr. Birchler serves on editorial boards for a dozen journals. He is co-editor of the Maize Genetics Cooperation Newsletter. He has been an invited speaker at dozens of national and international meetings about drosophila, maize and biotechnology, and was on the organizing committee for several. The most recent was an international congress on plant biotechnology. He also serves on the Committee on Agricultural Preparedness of the President’s Council of Scientific Advisors (PCAST).

This year’s colloquium will focus on future trends in food production and ways to make use of genetic resources. This may be through use of new food crops, engineering or “conventional” selection of traditional crops, or blending of these strategies.