Michael J. Axtell, the Louis and Hedwig Sternberg Chair in Plant Biology and Distinguished Professor of Biology, will present the inaugural Louis and Hedwig Sternberg Chair in Plant Biology Lecture at 11:30am on Monday, March 27, 2023, at the Hintz Family Alumni Center on the Penn State University Park campus. The lecture, titled “Small but Mighty: MicroRNAs in Plants,” is free and open to the public.
Axtell, was named the Louis and Hedwig Sternberg Chair in Plant Biology in the Eberly College of Science in 2022. The Chair was established by alumnus Harold L. Kohn and his wife Carol K. Kohn in 2020 to honor Harold’s grandparents, Lewis and Hedwig Sternberg. The Kohn Charitable Trust endowed this position in recognition of Louis Sternberg’s connection to the land, Louis’s and Hedwig’s respect for education and knowledge, and the importance of plant biology for our future. It is designed to enhance Penn State’s position of leadership in plant biology.
Axtell’s lecture will focus on microRNAs, which are small RNA molecules that are critical for controlling the timing and amount of genes produced—or expressed—by a cell in most complex organisms. Genes are the fundamental units of heredity and contain the code to produce proteins that are the functional and structural building blocks of cells. Control of gene expression is therefore fundamentally important for life and understanding its mechanism has numerous applications in biotechnology, crop improvement, and human health. Axtell will discuss his group’s contributions to methodologies that have allowed discovery and characterization of microRNAs in plants, animals, and humans, as well as characterization of unique trans-species microRNAs that are deployed by parasites to control gene expression in their hosts. Significant advances in biotechnology have come from the exploitation of natural processes involved in pathogen-parasite interactions. In the future, the Axtell group will be attempting to use the natural ability to move microRNAs between plants as a tool for crop improvement.
Axtell’s research group uses computational methods to discover, annotate, and quantify microRNAs and other small RNA genes in plants. His group also uses genetics, molecular biology, and genomics to study the function of ancient small RNAs in diverse plant species, identify the genes that are the targets of small RNA repression, and understand the sequence requirements of the interaction of small RNAs and their targets.
Axtell is a member of the American Society of Plant Biologists. His research accomplishments have been recognized with a Faculty Scholar Medal from Penn State in 2019, the Masatoshi Nei Innovation Prize in Biology from Penn State in 2018, the Dean’s Award in Natural Sciences and Mathematics from Ithaca College in 1998, and a Past Presidents Award from the Phi Kappa Phi honorary society at Ithaca College in 1998. He received a Helen Hay Whitney Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2004, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship in 1998, a Berkeley Fellowship in 1998, and a Barry M. Goldwater Fellowship in 1997.
Axtell joined the faculty at Penn State in August 2006 as an assistant professor and was promoted to associate professor in 2011, to professor in 2016, and named distinguished professor in 2022. Prior to this, he was a postdoctoral fellow in the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Axtell earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Ithaca College in 1998. He earned a doctoral degree in plant biology at the University of California at Berkeley in 2003.