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Series ended

NSF BIO Distinguished Lecture Series

About the series

The Directorate for Biological Sciences 2021 Distinguished Lecture Series is now complete. Speaker information, abstracts, and recording information for each of the lectures is below.

February 26, 2021
11 a.m. - 12 p.m.

Corrie Moreau, PhD
Martha N. & John C. Moser Professor of Arthropod Biosystematics and Biodiversity
Director & Curator of the Cornell University Insect Collection

Cornell University
Sponsored by the Division of Environmental Biology (DEB)

Ants, Plants, and Bacteria: Symbiosis as a Driver of Evolution
To fully understand the macroevolutionary factors that have promoted the diversification and persistence of biological diversity varied tools and disciplines must be integrated.  By combining data from several fields including molecular phylogenetics/phylogenomics, comparative genomics, biogeographic range reconstruction, stable isotope analyses, microbial community sequencing, and metagenomics to study the evolutionary history of the insects, we are beginning to understand the drivers of speciation and the interconnectedness of life.  Comparative phylogenetic analysis reveals the interconnectedness of ants and plants and that ants diversified after the rise of the angiosperms.  Comparative genomics has permitted the exploration of the role of symbiosis on genome evolution and behavioral gene evolution demonstrating that Red Queen dynamics are at play in obligate mutualisms.  While studies combining the trophic ecology of the ants and next-generation sequencing of gut-associated bacteria of ants highlight the importance of this microbiome association in the evolution of herbivory.  Microbial contributions to ants are not limited to diet enrichment and we find evidence for their role in cuticle formation.  These multiple lines of evidence are illuminating a more complete picture of ant evolution and providing novel insights into the role that symbiosis plays to promote biological diversity.


March 19, 2021
11 a.m. - 12 p.m.

Jef Boeke, PhD
Director of the Sol and Judith Bergstein Institute of System Genetics
Professor, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacology
New York University
Sponsored by the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB)

Tormenting Genomes
Rapid advances in DNA synthesis techniques have made it possible to engineer diverse genomic elements, pathways, and whole genomes, providing new insights into design and analysis of systems. In a major genome engineering effort, the synthetic yeast genome project, Sc2.0, is well on its way with the 16 synthetic Saccharomyces cerevisiae chromosomes now >99% completed by a global team. A hallmark of the synthetic genome is a set of strategically located loxP sites that enable genome restructuring using an inducible evolution system termed SCRaMbLE, which can generate millions of derived variant genomes with predictable structures leading to complex genotypes and phenotypes.  Remarkably, the 3D structures of synthetic and native chromosomes are very similar. In a second experimental effort, the yeast karyotype was recently completely engineered, by systematically fusing pairs of telomeres and deleting single centromeres, thus generating an isogenic series of yeast ranging from n=16 to n=2. These strains show reproductive isolation and a massively altered 3D genome structure, yet they are surprisingly “Normal” and show high fitness. Even moving megabase segments to distant locations has little impact on fitness.  However, another form of tormenting the genome—by switching human for yeast DNA packaging machinery—does lead to observable outcomes.  Finally, the DNA synthesis pipeline, GenomeFoundry@ISG, has been automated, opening the door to parallelized big DNA assembly, including assembly of human genomic regions of 100 kb along with multiple designer synthetic variants thereof. Such segments can be precisely delivered to stem cells to dissect genomic “dark matter”, to perform transplants of specific human genomic regions to animal genomes, and to endow human cells with new capabilities.


April 23, 2021
11 a.m. - 12 p.m.
Beronda Montgomery, PhD
MSU Foundation Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Michigan State University
Sponsored by the Division of Biological Infrastructure (DBI)

From Seeds of Inspiration to a Harvest of Discovery
Beronda L. Montgomery’s research seeks to understand how organisms perceive and respond to their environment, especially focused on the complex way in which photosynthetic organisms respond to light. Her work uses cyanobacteria and plants to elucidate the complex molecular mechanisms that underlie plant perception of and responses to light, including the role of signaling mechanisms in stress responses. Her work on plant pigments such as biliprotein phytochromes seeks to uncover the molecular mechanisms that operate in different organs of the plant, revealing the processes by which the light environment where plants grow shapes their growth processes and stress-responses. Dr. Montgomery has an equal depth of research on cultural aspects of science, with a focus on revealing the factors that promote recruitment and retention of a diverse STEM workforce in Higher Education. In this talk, Dr. Montgomery will describe her path to date, which has included key branch points that have advanced her core research in photobiology of plants, while providing complementary opportunities to acquire new skills and integrate engagement in scholarship on mentoring and leadership.


May 6, 2021
12 p.m. - 1 p.m.

Gene Robinson, PhD
Director of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology
Swanlund Chair
Professor of Entomology
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Sponsored by the Division of Integrative Organismal Systems

The Earth BioGenome Project: Sequencing Life for the Future of Life
Increasing our understanding of Earth's biodiversity, responsibly stewarding its resources, and maximizing our ability to utilize biological information for purposes of biosecurity and the bioeconomy are among the most crucial scientific and societal challenges of this century. These challenges require fundamental new knowledge of the organization, evolution, functions, and inter-specific interactions for the planet's entire suite of organisms. This lecture describes the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP), a moonshot for biology that aims to sequence, catalog, and characterize the genomes of all of Earth's eukaryotic biodiversity over a period of 10 years. In addition to discussing the rationale, feasibility, and organization of this global, modular, decentralized project, I will provide an update on some of the projects already underway in several countries outside the US.


June 17, 2021
11 a.m. - 12 p.m.

David Asai, PhD
Senior Director for Science Education
Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI)
Sponsored by the BIO Broadening Participation Working Group

Deepen Responsibility to Broaden Participation
In the quarter century of its existence, the NSF Broader Impacts requirement has broadened the participation of segments of the scientific community in the portfolio of NSF awards.  Broader Impacts has become an important mechanism to reward scientists for participating in teaching, outreach, and involving students in authentic research.  Broader Impacts also focusses attention on the importance of adding diversity among scientists and science students.  Despite the continuing challenge of educating reviewers in how to assess the effectiveness and the relative merits of Broader Impacts activities, the Broader Impacts requirement has been a success.It seems to me that it is time to build on the Broader Impacts idea pioneered by NSF and expand it to the larger scientific and educational community.  “Broader Impacts version 2.0” (BI2.0) presents opportunities to move beyond a focus on Diversity-framed activities and engage scientists and institutions in building Equity-framed activities.  In this presentation I will discuss a few HHMI Science Education initiatives that attempt to advance diversity through equity. 

Additional information on this topic can be found in:

  • C. Riegle-Crumb, B. King, and Y. Irizarry, 2019.  Educ. Res. 48: 133-144.
  • K.A. Griffin, 2020.  Higher Education:  Handbook of Theory and Research 35: 1-73.
  • L. Malcom-Piqueux, 2017.  peerReview 19: 1-8.  Association of American Colleges and Universities.
  • M. Martinez-Cola, 2020.  Understanding & Dismantling Privilege.  Vol. X(1):  25-57.
  • D.J. Asai, 2020.  Race Matters.  Cell 181: 754-757.

Past events in this series