Creative Research Medal 2020
Bob Schmitz, associate professor in the Department of Genetics, is studying new ways to create beneficial crop traits. Genetic variation is already exploited for crop improvement, but another kind of variation—epigenetic—has yet to be efficiently implemented. Epigenetic variation in plants occurs naturally and spontaneously, arising not from a change in the DNA sequence but from changes in DNA methylation. Such variation can result in novel and stably inherited phenotypes, as well as unique patterns of gene expression. His lab creates maps of where DNA methylation occurs in certain plants. Schmitz unexpectedly discovered extensive variation in how plant genomes use DNA methylation for a variety of cellular processes, even though they possess the same enzymes that are involved in adding methylation to DNA. Through comparative and experimental approaches, Schmitz and his colleagues are exploring development of technologies to alter DNA methylation for the purposes of inducing variation in gene expression to enhance trait variation.