MU scientist and inventor contributes to the study of cell genetics

December 16, 2014

COLUMBIA, Mo. - Cytogenetics is a branch of science that studies the structure and function of cells with a focus on the chromosomes found within the cell. Often, plant cell researchers can be limited in their experiments due to the lack of methods available to study these complex structures. Using tools created and patented by James Birchler, a scientist at the University of Missouri, plant researchers are able to break down and engineer small parts of a chromosome and further their research. In the future, these techniques could allow scientists to introduce multiple disease-resistant traits to plants.

For distinguished contributions to the field of cytogenetics, Birchler has been chosen for induction as a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI). Election as an NAI Fellow is a high professional distinction accorded to academic inventors who have demonstrated a highly prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development, and the welfare of society.

"I am honored that our laboratory was recognized by the NAI," Birchler said. "Our hope has always been that the tools developed would indeed benefit worldwide food security, a pressing issue in the coming years."

Birchler, Curators' Professor of Biological Sciences in the College of Arts and Science, and a member of the Interdisciplinary Plant Group at MU, pioneered the development of several novel tools and techniques for the genetic study of chromosomes. He and his colleagues developed an efficient technique to "paint," or visualize, chromosomes, parts of chromosomes and individual genes in corn. This technique, which uses fluorescent tags, has facilitated many studies of chromosome structure and behavior and has been adapted for other plant species.

His laboratory also is recognized for engineering the first synthetic chromosomes in plants. These extra chromosomes can be used as vehicles for introducing large blocks of new genes into plant cells and as a tool to edit the genomes on a large scale, which has potential for crop improvement.

Birchler holds a doctorate from Indiana University. He recently was named an Einstein Professor with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is an elected fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Birchler also serves as an associate editor of G3: Genes, Genomics, Genetics, the peer-reviewed scientific journal of the Genetics Society of America.

Birchler will be inducted by the Deputy U.S. Commissioner for Patents Andrew Faile of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in a ceremony at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena on March 20, 2015.
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University of Missouri-Columbia

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