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Election Year: 1998
Primary Section: 62, Plant, Soil, and Microbial Sciences
Secondary Section: 25, Plant Biology
Membership Type: Member
Susan Wessler is the Distinguished Professor of Genetics at the University of California Riverside and home secretary of the National Academy of Sciences. She is a molecular geneticist known for her contributions to the field of transposon biology, specifically on the roles of plant transposable elements in gene and genome evolution. Her laboratory has pioneered the use of computational and experimental analyses in the identification of actively transposing elements.
A native of New York City, Wessler received her bachelor's degree in biology from the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1974 and her Ph.D. in Biochemistry from Cornell University in 1980. She was a postdoctoral fellow of the American Cancer Society at the Carnegie Institution of Washington from 1980-1982. She began her career at the University of Georgia in 1983 where she remained until moving to the University of California, Riverside in 2010. At present she is an Associate Editor of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and is on the Editorial Board of Current Opinions in Plant Biology and on the Board of Reviewing Editors of the journal Science.
Wessler has contributed extensively to educational initiatives, including co-authorship of the widely used genetics textbook, Introduction to Genetic Analysis, and the popular reference book The Mutants of Maize. As a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor, she adapted her research program for the classroom by developing the Dynamic Genome Courses where incoming freshman can experience the excitement of scientific discovery in the state-of-the art Neil A. Campbell Science Learning Laboratory.
She is the recipient of several awards including the Creative Research Medal (1991) and the Lamar Dodd Creative Research Award (1997) from the University of Georgia, the Distinguished Scientist Award (2007) from the Southeastern Universities Research Association (SURA), the Stephen Hales Prize (2011) from the American Society of Plant Biologists, and the Excellence in Science Award from FASEB (2012). She is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
We are interested in understanding the role of transposable elements (TEs) in generating genetic diversity. To address this issue, we first characterized several TE-induced mutant alleles from maize that encode functional gene products despite containing large insertions. An important finding was that TEs often function as efficient introns. Recently, we discovered a new type of TE called miniature inverted repeat transposable elements (MITEs) that are now recognized as the element type most frequently associated with normal plant genes. MITEs have subsequently been identified in the genomes of insects, fish, worms, and mammals. MITEs are nonautonomous DNA elements that have managed to attain incredibly high copy numbers despite a striking preference for insertion into or near genes. Our data suggests recent and massive bursts of several MITE families in the maize and rice genomes and indicate that MITEs contribute significantly to creating allelic diversity. We have also pioneered the use of computational analysis in TE discovery and in the determination of genome-wide TE content.