Jeffrey Bennetzen, Ph.D.
Molecular Biology and Functional Genomics
The University of Georgia
Jeffrey Bennetzen has garnered widespread acclaim for his vital research on genetic structure, function and evolution in plants. By studying the genomes of cereals and other grasses from around the world, Bennetzen’s lab is developing technologies to increase crop yields for both food and biofuels. His top honors in the field include two Fulbright Awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship and his election to the National Academy of Sciences.
One of Bennetzen’s key projects was sequencing the genome of foxtail millet, an important food crop in Asia. This newly published gene sequence is enabling other researchers to search for genes associated with useful traits like disease resistance and drought tolerance. With this knowledge in hand, scientists can engineer better, hardier crops.
Foxtail millet is also a model system for the study of switchgrass, an important biofuel crop. Perennial and extremely hardy (as Georgia gardeners can attest), switchgrass thrives in marginal soils in warm climates and is incredibly effective at carbon capture. Plus, since it’s not a food crop, using switchgrass as a biofuel wouldn’t drive up costs on edible grains.
The Bennetzen lab is also exploring the genetic diversity of several minor crops from Africa, including teff, fonio and finger millets. These under-studied cereals, currently grown by subsistence farmers, are being replaced by wheat and maize — which more commercial but less adapted to the local environment. Bennetzen and his colleagues are working to uncover high-value genetic traits in these under-studied crops, which could then be used to engineer improvements in other crops. His first results include the identification of genes in teff that could dramatically improve mineral and protein quality in high-yielding cereals.
Among his many other contributions to the field, Bennetzen cloned and sequenced the first transposable elements from plants. Transposons, also called “mobile DNA,” are genetic elements that can copy and insert themselves at new spots in the genome, and play an important role in the evolution of all organisms, including humans. Scientists still have many questions about transposons and what they do; Bennetzen and his colleagues have continued to be the world’s foremost experts on the the role these transposable elements play in plant genome function and evolution.
Bennetzen also created the first genetic map of sorghum, a versatile grass used in syrups, alcohols, feed grain for animals and biofuels. In recent years, his lab has led the way or significantly assisted in the sequencing and further characterization of numerous plant genomes, including those from maize, Physcomitrella (a moss), Selaginella, date palm, strawberry, pear, foxtail millet, pineapple, several rice relatives, pearl millet, wheat, fonio millet and teff.
- Plant genome structure and evolution, especially transposable elements as causes and sensors of change in the genome
- The relationship between genomic context and gene expression
- Genetic diversity and crop improvement in under-utilized cereals of the developing world
- Rapid evolution of complex disease resistance loci in plants
- Promoting high biomass yields in switchgrass for biofuel
The University of Georgia is one of the top best institutions for plant genetics research in the world, and the state of Georgia is very supportive of higher education.