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Indiana University biologist Craig Pikaard elected to National Academy of Sciences

For Immediate Release May 5, 2017
Craig S. Pikaard
Craig S. Pikaard.Indiana University

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Craig S. Pikaard, a leading plant geneticist, biochemist and professor in the Indiana University Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences, has been elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Pikaard, the Carlos O. Miller Professor of Plant Growth and Development in the College’s Department of Biology and Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry, is the eighth active faculty member at IU elected for membership in this highly prestigious organization, and only the 26th in the university’s history. The last IU faculty member inducted into the organization was Emilio Moran, IU Distinguished Professor Emeritus and Rudy Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, in 2010.

Members of the National Academy of Sciences are selected in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research. Pikaard was one of 84 new members and 21 foreign associates of the organization announced May 2.

“Craig’s prodigious intellectual curiosity and pioneering research have led to major discoveries about the basic biological mechanisms of plants that, in turn, have revealed new insights into health and illness in humanity,” said IU President Michael A. McRobbie. “His groundbreaking and innovative work at the intersection of the fields of plant genetics and biomedical sciences, as well as the major impact he has had on important issues facing agriculture, more than qualifies him to join the select number of Indiana University members in one of the world’s premier scientific organizations.”

In his work, Pikaard uses discoveries in plants to advance research on the underlying genetic mechanisms involved in disease, such as cancer. He has made numerous discoveries about how plants “silence” the expression of their genes, with a particular interest in plant epigenetics – or inherited changes in gene activity that do not stem from changes in the DNA sequence.

This work provides insight into the role of gene silencing in normal biological development as well as sheds light on how changes in gene expression – such as the silencing of tumor suppressor genes in some cancer cells – can advance disease in people.

Working with Arabidopsis thaliana, a plant in the mustard family, for example, Pikaard’s discoveries related to gene silencing include identifying two previously unknown enzymes – called Pol IV and Pol V – that transcribe DNA into RNA molecules that then direct the silencing of corresponding genes. He also has shown that the phenomenon known as “nucleolar dominance,” in which repeated genes that are nearly identical in sequence somehow differ in activity, results from the selective silencing of these excess genes. His lab’s most recent work indicates that whether these gene are “on” or “off” depends on where the genes are located on chromosomes.

In addition to his position at IU, Pikaard is an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which recently extended his appointment through 2024 and provided an additional $9 million in research funds over the next seven years. He was first named an investigator with the institute in 2011 as part of the organization’s $75 million investment in plant research to address issues related to food production, human health, environmental protection and renewable energy. Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigators are regarded as being at the forefront of their fields. 

Pikaard is also an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the recipient of the 2015 Martin Gibbs Medal by the American Society of Plant Biologists, which honors researchers whose pioneering studies have established new directions in plant science. He is an elected member of the board of directors for the Genetics Society of America and received a Distinguished Agriculture Alumnus Award from Purdue University in 2010.

He holds a Ph.D. from Purdue University and a Bachelor of Science from the Pennsylvania State University. He also conducted postdoctoral research at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. Pikaard joined IU in 2009 after 19 years as a professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

Established under a congressional charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, the National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit institution that recognizes achievement in the sciences. Members of the National Academy of Sciences – along with the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Medicine – provide science, engineering and health policy advice to the federal government and other organizations.

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