MU's James Birchler Elected to National Academy of Sciences
Scientist Joins Nation's Most Presitigious Academic Society
Story posted: Feb. 11, 2011
By: James Birchler
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- The National Academy of Sciences has elected James Birchler, Curators' Professor of Biological Sciences in the MU College of Arts & Science, as a member. Birchler will be inducted into the organization next April during its annual meeting in Washington, D.C.
The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit honor society of distinguished scholars engaged in scientific and engineering research, dedicated to furthering science and technology for the general welfare. Established in 1863, NAS members are elected on the basis of their original scientific research. Past members include Albert Einstein, Orville Wright and Thomas Edison.
“I feel honored and humbled,” Birchler said. “I owe so much to my colleagues and those with whom I have worked over the years. My research would not have been possible without their help.”
Birchler is among the world's most highly regarded cytogeneticists - scientists that study the structure and function of cells, especially the chromosomes. Birchler created a technique that allows scientists to break down and engineer small parts of a chromosome. In the future, this technique could allow scientists to introduce multiple disease -resistant and agronomic traits to plants.
Birchler also developed a widely used technology to accurately visualize genes and chromosome features. He made major contributions toward understanding how plant and animal gene expression changes in response to the number of genes present. He was first to recognize that the dosage interaction of “gene regulators” - which control the expression of genes - is far more important than “structural genes” - the genes that make up a protein for the eventual expression pattern. Birchler co-founded the “gene balance hypothesis,” which predicts how genes behave during evolution. The hypothesis has the potential to impact future research in medicine, agriculture and biology.
“Birchler’s science is extraordinary,” said John David, chair and professor of the Division of Biological Sciences. “He’s been at the forefront of work being done in the field of genomics, and he’s accomplished this groundbreaking research in two systems, drosophila - or fruit flies - and maize.”
Birchler is the latest in a long line of influential maize researchers at the University of Missouri, where he has been a faculty member since 1991. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Eastern Illinois University and a doctoral degree from Indiana University. Prior to coming to MU, Birchler was an associate professor at Harvard University and a researcher at the University of California-Berkeley and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
“Jim is the first NAS member to ever come from the College of Arts and Science, and I couldn’t be more proud of the fact that he was the one who opened that door,” said Michael O’Brien, dean of the College of Arts and Science. “He’s a fantastic role model for all of us who are engaged in research.”
Birchler is well-known for his research on corn genomics, and has authored dozens of peer-reviewed articles. Since 1994, he has served as associate editor of the journal Genetics. He also is co-editor of The Plant Cell and the Maize Genetics Cooperation Newsletter and serves on the editorial board of nine other publications.
The National Academy of Sciences is not the first organization to recognize Birchler. In 2002, he was elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2007, Northeast Normal University of China gave Birchler the Award for Excellence in Academic Achievements. In addition, Birchler has been recognized for his teaching ability. He has received campus teaching awards from Zeta Tau Alpha sorority and the MU Panhellenic Council. Birchler regularly mentors students graduating with honors.
Birchler has lectured on plant genomics around the world. He has spoken to the Genetics Society of Canada, the International Society of Plant Molecular Biology Congress, the Maize Genetics Conference, the International Botanical Congress and the American Society of Plant Biologists. He has lectured in Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands and throughout the United States.
Birchler serves on several committees and boards. He was on the steering committee of the Maize Genetics Conference from 1988 to 1991, serving as chair in 1991. During the same period, he was overseer of the Maize Genetics Cooperation Stock Center. From 2000 to 2005, he was on the Maize Genetics Executive Committee. In 2010, Birchler was on the organizing and programming committees of the International Congress for Plant Biotechnology.