Christopher Cullis noted for contributions to plant science, including ‘fundamentally new insights’ on ongoing evolution of flax, other key food crops
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has named Christopher Cullis, the Francis Hobart Herrick Professor of Biology at Case Western Reserve University, a 2022 fellow.
The AAAS cited Cullis for “distinguished contributions to plant science by providing fundamentally new insights into possible mechanisms of evolution and stress adaptation, including rapid DNA rearrangement, in flax and other key food crops.”
College of Arts and Sciences Dean Joy K. Ward said Cullis “has been instrumental in the transformational shift taking place in the interaction between plant genomes and stress environments.”
“His work with key crops such as flax highlights the university’s priority to drive innovative research,” said Ward, who was a 2020 fellow of the AAAS. “I greatly admire Chris as both a fellow plant biologist and university leader. I am also most excited that he is joining our ranks as an AAAS member as his contributions to science have been most impactful and important.”
The 2022 AAAS fellows were formally announced today (Jan. 31).
Flax to the future
Cullis has spent more than 50 years investigating the unique properties of flax, among other biological sciences research.
While the flax plant (Linum usitatissimum) is currently known mostly for its nutritious seeds, it also has been cultivated by humans for more than 7,000 years for its fiber and oil.
And the ancient grain could play an even greater role in the future.
“With the climate changing rapidly, we need to develop crop varieties that will do better in those changing conditions—whether they are droughts, increased temperatures or pests and diseases,” Cullis said. “Flax offers some hope for one important reason—it shows an ability to evolve within a single generation.”
If scientists can isolate and control the gene(s) that allows for the nimble adaptation in flax, they may be able to quickly re-engineer many plant species to survive and thrive in drier or hotter weather, or whatever is required, he said. Most plants require years of adaptation or selection, often too slow to react to a rapidly changing climate, he said.
“The flax plant when it demonstrates a response to the environment, it does so by fundamentally changing some of its genetic code within a generation,” Cullis said. “Most of the DNA remains constant, of course, but these small changes are important.
“Think of it like sequestering a portion of your fortune, such as in an IRA —in this case, genetic information—away in a fund that has a position in all the new technology developments. In that case, only a small fraction needs to be successful to generate resources to pass on to your children and grandchildren and beyond.”
Someday, that characteristic may even be able to be isolated and exploited for other crops, he said, although that is expected to require years of additional research.
Early skepticism about flax properties
Cullis, who grew up in Zimbabwe and then studied in England in graduate school, came to Case Western Reserve in 1985 as a visiting professor and became a full professor the next year. His work has focused on “the mechanisms by which DNA within the cell can change rapidly, particularly in response to external stimuli.”
His interest in studying flax began while working with a molecular geneticist in graduate school and then at an independent research center in plant science, genetics and microbiology—both in Norwich, England.
But while modern scientific research into flax had begun in the 1950s, some of his conclusions about the unique nature of its genetic traits was met with skepticism by other scientists—from those earliest days through only a decade ago, he said.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve heard ‘I can’t find anything wrong with your work, but that just can’t be right,’” he said. “And now it’s finding its way into textbooks. So, this award is the culmination of a lot of progress and scholarly publications which have been received with various levels of skepticism.”
The flax observations where effects in one generation are transmitted to their offspring is not a typical epigenetics process, Cullis said.
Epigenetics studies how environment and behavior may cause reversible changes in how genes work—not fundamentally changing the DNA, but rather changing how the DNA sequence is decoded.
Cullis said he is interested in continuing developing a “flax pangenome” project (one that examines all variations of the plant) to further understand the mechanisms of the genomic changes demonstrated by the plant and how these provide variability to adapt to a changing environment.
Finally, researchers could then try to implement the same processes in other plants.
AAAS is the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the journal Science, among other digital and print publications.
The tradition of AAAS fellows began in 1874. Fellows must have been continuous members of AAAS for four years by the end of the calendar year in which they are elected.