Science & Technology

UGA researcher named Pew scholar in the biomedical sciences

Robert Schmitz is an assistant professor of genetics in the UGA Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

Athens, Ga. – University of Georgia researcher Bob Schmitz was recently named a Pew scholar in the biomedical sciences by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Schmitz, an assistant professor of genetics in UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, joins the ranks of more than 600 outstanding scientists who have been selected as Pew scholars in the 30 years since the program’s inception and whose careers have been dedicated to bold scientific discoveries.

“This new class of remarkable scientists is emblematic of all that is unique, exciting and compelling about this initiative,” said Rebecca W. Rimel, Pew’s president and CEO. “We are proud to provide a launching pad for the adventurous mind represented here, who will surely advance the field of biomedical science and create a healthier world for all of us.”

Schmitz’s research focuses on epigenetics. His laboratory is particularly interested in exploring a phenomenon known as DNA methylation and how this process affects the expression of traits of plants used in both agriculture and basic research.

“The long-term goal of my lab is to learn about mechanisms that control establishment and maintenance of DNA methylation such that we can engineer these pathways to specifically control gene expression,” said Schmitz, who is also a member of UGA’s Plant Center. “The results of our research will not only increase our understanding of how organisms program and maintain proper expression of genes, but it will also lead to new techniques to improve yield and nutritional value of a variety of crops.”

DNA methylation is a kind of signal that cells use to turn off specific genes. A plant may, for example, inherit genes from its parents that make it more drought-tolerant or able to produce more fruit, but because these segments of DNA have undergone methylation, the potentially advantageous genes are switched off.

Schmitz takes advantage of advances in sequencing technology to map the genome of different plants and identify which segments of DNA have undergone methylation. His laboratory may then explore ways to reverse methylation of these genes and observe the effects on the plant.

“In any given plant, reversing the methylation status randomly throughout the genome may have a positive or negative effect on plant traits, or it may have no observable effect at all,” Schmitz said. “But we know that some of the diversity in plants that we see in nature is controlled by DNA methylation, and we want to figure out how much more diversity we can generate in the laboratory by only altering the methylation status of genes instead of changing the underlying DNA sequence.”

The Pew award provides four years of flexible funding to scholars at the assistant professor level. Scientists are nominated for their dedication to pursuing the high-risk, high-reward research that can lead to extraordinary findings in bioscience.

All Pew scholars gather yearly to share their findings and spur new lines of inquiry that lead to partnerships and collaborations that can extend for years.

“This is a tremendous honor, and I’m excited to represent UGA and share ideas with the many outstanding scientists who are part of the Pew program,” Schmitz said. “Their support gives us the freedom to explore risky ideas and techniques in the lab that could lead to new breakthroughs.”