Creative Research Medal 2016
James Leebens-Mack, professor of plant biology, is a leading figure in plant evolutionary genomics. He co-led a team of scientists to sequence the genome of Amborella trichopoda, a small, shrub-like tree found only on the main island of New Caledonia in the South Pacific. Amborella is the sole survivor of an ancient evolutionary lineage that traces back to the last common ancestor of all flowering plants. By comparing the Amborella genome to those of other plants, Leebens-Mack and his colleagues reconstructed the portfolio of genes present in ancestral flowering plants. The information gleaned from this project sheds light on how flowering plants diversified so explosively soon after their origin over 150 million years ago, a problem Charles Darwin called an “abominable mystery.” Leebens-Mack also leads the Dogwood Genome Project, and Dimensions of Biodiversity project aimed at unraveling the molecular basis for plant adaptations to life in arid habitats.