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CSHL's Rob Martienssen honored by plant geneticists with Barbara McClintock Prize

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory


IMAGE: Rob Martienssen with his mentor, Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock, in the greenhouse, ca. 1990. Martienssen worked with McClintock for about two years after arriving at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in... view more 

Credit: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Cold Spring Harbor, NY -- Rob Martienssen, Professor, HHMI Investigator, and Head of Genomics and Plant Genetics at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) has received the 2018 Barbara McClintock Prize for Plant Genetics and Genome Studies. The award and medal will be conferred during a ceremony in Saint-Malo, France, on March 24th, as part of the 2018 Maize Genetics Conference.

The Barbara McClintock Prize for Plant Genetics and Genome Studies was created to memorialize the contributions of Dr. McClintock. Her 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded for her discovery and characterization of transposable genetic elements that she determined could move within the genome. "Her work was unprecedented in its conceptual novelty (showing that genetic elements could be mobile), in its demonstration that inheritance could be non-Mendelian, and in the extent of fundamental and applied research that grew from it," said Professor Karen Koch of the University of Florida on behalf of the McClintock Award committee.

To honor McClintock and her work, the award recognizes the most outstanding plant geneticists of the present era. As a McClintock Prize recipient, Martienssen will join an elite group of only four other plant geneticists who have been honored in this way. The first was Dr. David Baulcombe (University of Cambridge), followed by Dr. Susan Wessler (University of California - Riverside), Dr. Jeffrey D. Palmer (Indiana University at Bloomington), and most recently, Dr. Michael Freeling (University of California - Berkley).

Professor Koch said this about Martienssen's work: "Rob Martienssen's research stands out for its pioneering contributions to epigenetic mechanisms of gene regulation and inheritance. His stellar work with transposons, DNA methylation, and histone modification has linked these with chromatin remodeling and RNA interference. For identifying this relationship, he and his colleagues were awarded the #1 Breakthrough of the Year (in all fields) at Science in 2002. His work has also revealed unifying mechanisms that underlie transcriptional and post-transcriptional silencing. Still further, research by he and co-workers has demonstrated the existence of plant cell-type-specific small RNAs and their capacity to alter imprinting by moving to adjacent cell types. Finally, Rob has brought diverse approaches to bear on identifying many genes that control classical genetic traits."

For two years after arriving at CSHL in the late 1980s, Martienssen had the thrill of working at Dr. McClintock's side. His early research actually confirmed and extended McClintock's, demonstrating that methylation keeps transposons in check--prevents them from hopping at will from genomic place to place, interrupting genes, and inevitably, threatening the viability of the organism. Epigenetic control, it became clear, was a kind of genome defense mechanism.


More on Martienssen's career:

About Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Founded in 1890, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has shaped contemporary biomedical research and education with programs in cancer, neuroscience, plant biology and quantitative biology. Home to eight Nobel Prize winners, the private, not-for-profit Laboratory employs 1,100 people including 600 scientists, students and technicians. The Meetings & Courses Program annually hosts more than 12,000 scientists. The Laboratory's education arm also includes an academic publishing house, a graduate school and the DNA Learning Center with programs for middle and high school students and teachers. For more information, visit

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