Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) Professor and HHMI Investigator Rob Martienssen has been named the 2020 Royal Society Darwin Medal winner. Martienssen was chosen because of his groundbreaking work in the field of genetics, specifically for his contributions in defining the role of RNA interference (RNAi) in silencing genes and stabilizing the genome across generations. Though modifications (called epigenetic inheritance) can last for generations, they can also be reversible.
Martienssen is excited about how such findings can be applied. For plants, he notes, “We have discovered that modifications of RNA can impact epigenetic inheritance, and we are hoping to use this property to engineer plants that can respond to challenges, such as climate change, through reversible epigenetics.”
Martienssen was inspired by his colleagues, especially people he’d met at CSHL. He reflects, “I was fortunate to meet Barbara McClintock towards the end of her life and to discuss the impact of epigenetics on gene control by transposable elements. Some of the earliest, and in a sense most important, discoveries in my career were inspired by those conversations. I was recently able to publish a picture of her teaching me how to isolate maize germ cells!”
The Royal Society awards annual prizes to celebrate exceptional researchers and outstanding contributions to science across a wide array of fields. The Darwin Medal is awarded for work in evolution, population biology, organismal biology and biological diversity. Martienssen studies the epigenetic mechanisms of gene regulation and their important impact on genome organization and inheritance, by studying yeast and model plants including Arabidopsis, duckweed, and maize. Martienssen says:
“It is hard to express what an honor it is to receive this award. Some of Charles Darwin’s most remarkable discoveries and controversial ideas, still influence our work and his signature in the Charter Book inspires to this day. Joining the list of previous winners is truly standing on the shoulders of giants.”
“The Royal Society’s medals and awards celebrate those researchers whose groundbreaking work has helped answer fundamental questions and advance our understanding of the world around us,” said Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society. This year has highlighted how integral science is in our daily lives and tackling the challenges we face, and it gives me great pleasure to congratulate all our winners and thank them for their work.”