J. Chris Pires Celebrated for Research Contributions
J. Chris Pires, a professor in the Division of Biological Sciences, was selected for the 2017 Chancellor’s Award for Outstanding Research and Creative Activity.
The award is given once a year to a professor who has made outstanding contributions in research and has great promise for achieving wider recognition. It is one of the highest research honors bestowed by the MU campus.
“I am deeply honored to receive this award,” said Pires. “My research is only possible with collaborations, and I have been very fortunate to have so many fantastic students and colleagues here at MU and around the globe.”
As an investigator in the Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center, Pires studies the evolutionary processes that shape the diversity of plants. The focus of his research is on plant species that have undergone genome duplication events in their evolutionary history and, as a result, have an extra set of chromosomes. He’s interested in whether such so-called polyploid plants have used the extra genetic material to develop new traits and to diversify.
“Are all genes maintained, or are some genes kept preferentially over others? Do the extra gene copies evolve new functions and thus lead to novel traits? These are the kinds of compelling questions Professor Pires is asking,” said John C. Walker, a Curators’ Distinguished Professor of biological Sciences. “Since we now know that many, if not all, eukaryotes have experienced at least one ancient genome duplication event in their evolutionary history, the answers to these questions have broad implications, including to humans.”
Pires carries out his research in the crop genus Brassica. This genus includes several important vegetable and oilseed crops, including cabbage, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and canola.
James Birchler, a Curators’ Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences, said, “the genomes in this genus have various copy number depending on the particular species. This condition has become an interesting object of study, and Dr. Pires is one of the leading practitioners of this field.”
For Pires, what is important about these plants is the morphological diversity within and between species, a fact he hypothesizes is due to the several chromosome doubling events over its evolutionary history. In his quest to answer this question, he has contributed significantly to sequencing the genomes of several Brassica species.
“Understanding the genomics of these species is important not only for understanding the effects of genome duplication in their evolution, but also in guiding improvements to these important crops,” said Walker.
Pires employs a combination of advanced molecular, genomic, and computational approaches and techniques to tease apart the follow-on effects of this key evolutionary mechanism. His studies span the gene, chromosome, and whole genome levels and encompass both recent and ancient chromosome doubling events. His investigatory approach, said Peter Raven, has helped to bring our understanding of this biological phenomenon “to a whole new level.”
“We used to think solely in terms of recent, obvious polyploidy, but today, in a development to which Chris has contributed substantially, we have come to understand that ancient polyploid events are reflected in the genomic makeup of modern plant species too,” said Raven, who is president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Gardens and former home secretary of the National Academy of Sciences.
“His research record is truly exceptional,” he added.
In a recent study, Pires showed that genome duplication fueled a co-evolutionary “arms race” between a plant (cabbage) and the insect (white cabbage butterfly) that feeds on it and led to the diversification of both. The study provided the first experimental verification of co-evolution, an idea first proposed by Raven and his colleague, Paul Erhlich, 50 years ago.
“That evolutionary innovation could be driven by gene and genome duplications could not have been imagined by Ehrlich and Raven in the pre-genomic era,” said Distinguished Professor of Biology Jeffrey Palmer of the Indiana University. The finding, he added, is “terribly exciting, as it provides novel insights with both immediate and enduring impact.”
Palmer noted that Pires has coauthored a number of other important papers “on such diverse subjects as plant domestication, the evolution of the ancestral angiosperm genome, and the impact of symbiotic associations on host genome evolution.” He called Pires’ publication record, which landed him on Thomson Reuters’ List of Highly Cited Researchers in 2015, “truly outstanding.”
“Pires is one of the leaders of his generation in plant genomics and evolutionary biology,” said Palmer, who is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
Walker noted that Pires has made fundamental contributions to science alongside building a “stellar reputation” as a teacher and mentor of students.
“Professor Pires has been very successful at combining his passion for teaching and mentoring students with his research on plant evolutionary biology,” said Walker. “He has a selfless mentoring philosophy directed toward fostering student creativity and developing new areas of investigation in plant evolution.”
Pires, who has taught an undergraduate course on plant systematics for over a decade, is the recipient of several campus mentoring awards, including the Outstanding Undergraduate Research Mentor Award and the Ann K. Covington Award for Mentoring.
Pires will be presented with the award during a ceremony in the fall. The honor includes a $1,000 personal stipend plus an additional $2,000 for research.
Previous recipients of the award from the Division of Biological Sciences are Raymond Semlitsch (1999), John C. Walker (1997), Kathleen Netwon (1995), and Donald Riddle (1987).