Rob Martienssen

Rob Martienssen

Professor & HHMI Investigator
William J. Matheson Professor
Cancer Center Member

Ph.D., Cambridge University, 1986

martiens@cshl.edu | 516-367-8322

Faculty Profile

Chromosomes are covered with chemical modifications that help control gene expression. I study this secondary genetic code - the epigenome - and how it is guided by small mobile RNAs in plants and fission yeast. Our discoveries impact plant breeding and human health, and we use this and other genomic information to improve aquatic plants as a source of bioenergy.

Epigenetic mechanisms of gene regulation—chemical and conformational changes to DNA and the chromatin that bundles it—have had an important impact on genome organization and inheritance and on cell fate. These mechanisms are conserved in eukaryotes and provide an additional layer of information superimposed on the genetic code. Robert Martienssen, a pioneer in the study of epigenetics, investigates mechanisms involved in gene regulation and stem cell fate in yeast and model plants including Arabidopsis and maize. He and his colleagues have shed light on a phenomenon called position-effect variegation, caused by inactivation of a gene positioned near densely packed chromosomal material called heterochromatin. They have discovered that small RNA molecules arising from repeating genetic sequences program that heterochromatin. Martienssen and colleagues have described a remarkable process by which “companion cells” to sperm in plant pollen grains provide them with instructions that protect sperm DNA from transposon damage. They found that some of these instructions, or epigenetic marks, could be inherited in the next generation. These marks, and the small RNA responsible that guide them, can sense the number of chromosomes inherited from pollen and may allow Arabidopsis, a flowering plant, to produce egg cells without meiosis, an important step toward a long-time goal of plant breeding: generating clonal offspring to perpetuate hybrid vigor. The lab has also shown that when RNA polymerase II has transcribed a stretch of DNA, the RNA interference mechanism causes the enzyme to release its hold on the DNA and fall away. This allows the replication fork to progress smoothly and the DNA strands to be copied; histone-modifying proteins, which follow right along, establish heterochromatin. Martienssen’s group also continues to work on problems related to the creation of plant-based biofuels. As part of a collaborative project to generate a high-quality full genome map of the oil palm plant, Martienssen and his colleagues identified a transposon whose modification controls the yield of oil palm trees. This discovery will increase yields and should lessen the environmental burden of oil palm production, which often threatens already endangered rainforest lands.

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All Publications

Dicer promotes genome stability via the bromodomain transcriptional co-activator BRD4

22 Feb 2022 | Nature Communications | 13(1):1001
Gutbrod, M, Roche, B, Steinberg, J, Lakhani, A, Chang, K, Schorn, A, Martienssen, R

The genetic and epigenetic landscape of the Arabidopsis centromeres

12 Nov 2021 | Science | 374(6569):eabi7489
Naish, Matthew, Alonge, Michael, Wlodzimierz, Piotr, Tock, Andrew, Abramson, Bradley, Schmücker, Anna, Mandáková, Terezie, Jamge, Bhagyshree, Lambing, Christophe, Kuo, Pallas, Yelina, Natasha, Hartwick, Nolan, Colt, Kelly, Smith, Lisa, Ton, Jurriaan, Kakutani, Tetsuji, Martienssen, Robert, Schneeberger, Korbinian, Lysak, Martin, Berger, Frédéric, Bousios, Alexandros, Michael, Todd, Schatz, Michael, Henderson, Ian

Regulation of retrotransposition in Arabidopsis.

8 Sep 2021 | Biochemical Society Transactions
Lee, Seung, Martienssen, Robert

Small RNAs guide histone methylation in Arabidopsis embryos

01 Jun 2021 | Genes and Development
Parent, Jean-Sébastien, Cahn, Jonathan, Herridge, Rowan, Grimanelli, Daniel, Martienssen, Robert

Circadian immunity, sunrise time and the seasonality of respiratory infections.

31 Mar 2021 | medRxiv
Mo, Ziyi, Scheben, Armin, Steinberg, Joshua, Siepel, Adam, Martienssen, Robert

Male fertility in Arabidopsis requires active DNA demethylation of genes that control pollen tube function.

18 Jan 2021 | Nature Communications | 12(1):410
Khouider, Souraya, Borges, Filipe, LeBlanc, Chantal, Ungru, Alexander, Schnittger, Arp, Martienssen, Robert, Colot, Vincent, Bouyer, Daniel

Phase separation in plant miRNA processing.

Jan 2021 | Nature Cell Biology | 23(1):5-6
Lee, Seung, Martienssen, Robert

Genome and time-of-day transcriptome of Wolffia australiana link morphological minimization with gene loss and less growth control.

23 Dec 2020 | Genome Research | 31(2):225-238
Michael, Todd, Ernst, Evan, Hartwick, Nolan, Chu, Philomena, Bryant, Douglas, Gilbert, Sarah, Ortleb, Stefan, Baggs, Erin, Sree, K, Appenroth, Klaus, Fuchs, Joerg, Jupe, Florian, Sandoval, Justin, Krasileva, Ksenia, Borisjuk, Ljudmylla, Mockler, Todd, Ecker, Joseph, Martienssen, Robert, Lam, Eric

Loss of Small-RNA-Directed DNA Methylation in the Plant Cell Cycle Promotes Germline Reprogramming and Somaclonal Variation

27 Nov 2020 | Current Biology | 31(3):591-600
Borges, F, Donoghue, M, LeBlanc, C, Wear, E, Tanurdžić, M, Berube, B, Brooks, A, Thompson, W, Hanley-Bowdoin, L, Martienssen, R

Comparing DNA replication programs reveals large timing shifts at centromeres of endocycling cells in maize roots.

Oct 2020 | PLoS Genetics | 16(10):e1008623
Wear, Emily, Song, Jawon, Zynda, Gregory, Mickelson-Young, Leigh, LeBlanc, Chantal, Lee, Tae-Jin, Deppong, David, Allen, George, Martienssen, Robert, Vaughn, Matthew, Hanley-Bowdoin, Linda, Thompson, William

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