Molecular Geneticist Awarded McClintock Prize

UC Riverside’s Susan R. Wessler is recognized for contributions to the study of fragments of DNA called transposable elements

Photo shows Susan Wessler.

Susan R. Wessler is a distinguished professor of genetics in the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences at UC Riverside. Photo credit: L. Duka.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Susan R. Wessler, a distinguished professor of genetics at the University of California, Riverside and a world-renowned expert in transposable elements, has been awarded the McClintock Prize for Plant Genetics and Genome Studies for her exceptional contributions to and leadership in the study of plant transposable elements for the last three decades. Transposable elements are DNA pieces that can move from one genomic location to another and duplicate themselves in the process.

Given in recognition of career scientific accomplishments, the award, now in its second year, is presented by the Maize Genetics Executive Committee (MGEC) each year in memory of Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock to “one of the most creative minds and productive scientists in the study of plant genome structure, function and evolution.”

“This is an unexpected and humbling honor,” Wessler said. “I am especially pleased to be receiving an award named after a scientist whose discovery of transposable elements in maize started a revolution in biology and greatly influenced my career. I had the great privilege to know Dr. Barbara McClintock for the last ten years of her life.  During that time I visited her lab at Cold Spring Harbor, where we spent hours discussing science and life.  I cherish those memories and have passed them down to my two daughters who are both pursuing careers in science.”

Barbara McClintock (1902-1992), one of the world’s most distinguished cytogeneticists and one of the foremost women scientists in 20th century America, is most noted for her pioneering research on transposable elements in maize. For this work she was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1983, the first woman to receive an unshared Nobel Prize in that category.

Wessler first met McClintock in the early 1980s when Wessler was a postdoctoral scholar at the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Baltimore. Many of the strains she used later in her research as a faculty member at the University of Georgia were ones that McClintock had isolated and characterized genetically.  McClintock guided Wessler in seeing what was important about these strains.  Wessler recalls being on the phone on one occasion with McClintock for nearly three hours as the latter went line by line over a paper by Wessler that eventually was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Around the time McClintock won the Nobel Prize, Wessler and a fellow-postdoctoral scholar had two research papers accepted in the journal Cell.  Soon after, when Wessler entered McClintock’s lab in Cold Spring Harbor, McClintock came up to her to congratulate her on the two papers.  “I said to her ‘What are you congratulating me for? You just won the Nobel Prize!’ But she brushed that aside and went back to praising the papers I had just published,” Wessler said.

Wessler began her career at the University of Georgia in 1983 and worked in various capacities at the university—including director of the Center for Plant Cellular and Molecular Biology and University of Georgia Foundation Chair in Biological Sciences—until she joined the faculty of UC Riverside in 2010.

Her laboratory focuses on plant transposable elements and the evolution of plant genomes. It has pioneered the use of computational and experimental analyses in the identification of actively transposing elements.

The human genome has 2.5 billion letters—about 1000 textbooks of 1000 pages each with no pictures. More than 50 percent of the human genome (the equivalent of ~500 of these textbooks) is derived from transposable elements.  The analysis of genome sequences from both plants and animals has led to the surprising finding that transposable elements comprise the single largest component—over 75 percent of some important plant genomes including maize, wheat and barley.

“For several decades, Sue Wessler has been the world leader in the study of the mobile DNAs that are the major drivers of plant genome evolution, so her recognition with the McClintock Prize is highly deserved,” said Jeff Bennetzen, an MGEC member, who announced the award today. A colleague of Wessler’s for decades, Bennetzen is also the Norman and Doris Giles Professor of Genetics and Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar at the University of Georgia.

Wessler is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor. In 2011, she was elected home secretary of the National Academy of Sciences and named the recipient of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology 2012 Excellence in Science Award. Last year she was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society.

Wessler graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology from Stony Brook University, of the State University of New York, in 1974 and earned her doctoral degree from Cornell University in 1980. She is co-author of The Mutants of Maize(Cold Spring Harbor Press) and of more than 120 research articles. She is one of the principal authors of Introduction to Genetic Analysis, a leading textbook used in introductory genetics courses in colleges and universities throughout the world.

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