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Last modified: Thursday, June 16, 2011

IU biologist Pikaard one of 15 in nation to benefit from $75 million plant science initiative

IU Bloomington to receive an estimated $5 million for researcher to advance work

June 16, 2011

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Indiana University Bloomington biologist Craig Pikaard has been selected by Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation as one of the nation's most innovative plant scientists. He will take part in a new initiative that boosts much needed funding for fundamental plant science research.

Pikaard, 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, will join 14 other scientists as HHMI-GBMF Investigators and in turn will receive the flexible support necessary to move research in creative new directions. The two organizations are investing $75 million in the new plant science research program over the length of the initial five-year research appointments that begin in September.

Craig Pikaard

Craig Pikaard, IU Bloomington's Carlos O. Miller Professor of Plant Growth and Development

Print-Quality Photo

"GBMF and HHMI believe the research will generate high-impact discoveries with implications for a range of intertwined concerns facing society: food production, human health, protection of the environment and identification of renewable energy resources," said Vicki L. Chandler, Chief Program Officer for Science at GBMF, in making the announcement today (June 16).

Pikaard's laboratory is focused on how plants control the activity of their genes, and most specifically on the evolution of RNA polymerases, the enzymes responsible for decoding the information stored in chromosomes. In 2009 and just prior to coming to IU, Pikaard and other researchers at Washington University in St. Louis discovered that two RNA polymerases (Pol IV and V) found only in plants were actually enzymes that had evolved from another polymerase (PolII), an essential enzyme found in all eukaryotic organisms, including plants and humans.

"Our group is now working to understand the functions of the twelve subunits of Polymerases IV and V, and how these enzymes evolved from RNA polymerase II, which is the enzyme that transcribes the DNA into RNAs that encode proteins," he said. "We are also working to understand how and why Pol IV and Pol V zero in on some parts of the genome and not others, generating RNAs that do not encode proteins but instead bring about the silencing of potentially harmful transposable elements related to retroviruses, as well as other repetitive sequences that are important to silence."

A related area of research concerns nucleolar dominance, or the selective silencing of one parental set of rRNA genes, in a genetic hybrid.

In making the announcement, HHMI-GBMF officials said that despite the central role plants play in maintaining human health and in healthcare, basic research in the plant sciences represents only about 2 percent of overall life sciences spending by the federal government. In the United States, the bulk of the funding from the Department of Agriculture has not gone to competitive basic research, and the Biology Directorate program at the National Science Foundation is relatively small with limited dedicated programs in fundamental plant biology. Furthermore, researchers working in the plant sciences receive a relatively small percentage of funding from the National Institutes of Health, although Pikaard feels fortunate to have two NIH grants currently supporting his lab's research.

Pikaard said he was encouraged and excited about participating in a new program focused on investing in fundamental plant science.

"I anticipate that becoming an HHMI-GBMF Investigator will have a huge impact on my academic life," he said. "It will buy a lot of creative freedom, both 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."

Pikaard estimated the appointment would result in IU receiving about $1 million per year over the five years: About $3 million in direct research funding, Pikaard's salary and benefits as an HHMI employee, a fee to IU for lab space use, and some additional indirect costs.

Pikaard received his B.S. from Pennsylvania State University and completed his Ph.D. at Purdue University. He is a recipient of the Purdue University Distinguished Agriculture Alumnus Award (2010), and is also a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

To view research profiles created by HHMI-GBMF on each of the 15 scientists, visit here.

For more information or to speak with Pikaard, please contact Steve Chaplin, University Communications, at 812-856-1896 or