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U of T evolutionary biologist Stephen Wright takes Steacie Prize

Stephen Wright, a professor and Canada Research Chair in Population Genomics, was awarded the prestigious Steacie Prize (photo courtesy of the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada)

“The genome itself is not this blueprint – it’s a society of genes where there is all this evolutionary activity going on in its own right”

Evolutionary biologist and world-renowned plant genomicist Stephen Wright of the University of Toronto has capped a remarkable year by winning the prestigious Steacie Prize.

The prize is awarded annually to a scientist or engineer 40 years of age or younger for notable contributions to research in Canada.  

“It’s certainly a big honour for our group,” says Wright, a professor and Canada Research Chair in Population Genomics with U of T’s department of ecology & evolutionary biology.

“It’s an especially exciting thing for our department since this is the second year in a row that we have received this,” adds Wright, noting that his colleague Aneil Agrawal, a distinguished professor of evolutionary genetics, was the 2015 Steacie Prize winner. “It’s also a great coup for our field.”

Wright says the back-to-back awards speak to the growing stature of evolutionary biology and genomics in the sciences. 

Just as he was finishing his undergraduate degree, the first plant genome was being mapped out. Since then, the study of evolutionary plant genomics has skyrocketed with a rapidly growing number of species now catalogued in huge data sets.

“I sort of grew up as the field was growing up,” Wright says.

“Our ability to address these questions is still exploding.”

Wright has already established himself as one of the world’s most influential scientists in this emerging field of plant population and evolutionary genomics.

Earlier this year, he won a Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship. It is helping to fund his lab’s new research on herbicide-resistant “super weeds,” a growing threat to global food security and the livelihood of millions of farmers.

Read more about the fellowship

He also won the 2016 Margaret Dayhoff Award for Research Excellence from the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution (SMBE) and was inducted this year to the College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists of the Royal Society of Canada. To date, Wright has published approximately 90 peer-reviewed journal articles, garnering nearly 5,500 citations. This body of work has provided important new insights into how plant genomes evolve and adapt and the evolutionary consequences of reproducing by inbreeding and cloning.  

Wright is the 20th U of T scientist to receive the Steacie Prize since it was created in 1964. The prize is named in honour of a former president of NSERC and administered by the trustees of the E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fund, a private foundation dedicated to the advancement of science and engineering in Canada.

"There were a number of really outstanding nominees from a wide range of scientific disciplines but Stephen stood out, and the final decision was fairly easy," says Bob McKellar, researcher emeritus with NSERC.

Wright says the next step in understanding how herbicide resistance evolves in weeds, sometimes in just five or 10 years, is figuring out more about how resistance spreads through populations and across the landscape. To investigate this, it is also essential to determine what parts of the genome have functionally important roles.

But identifying functional regions of the genome is not trivial.

“It’s essentially like looking at a big pile of parts, but it’s even worse than that because a lot of the parts may not do anything.” 

While he maintains his interest in applying plant population genomics to probing that question – a problem analogous to antibiotic resistance in bacteria – Wright says he’s equally intrigued by how the genome is structured, which is still poorly understood by scientists.

Wright notes that almost half of the human genome and up to 80 per cent of some plant genomes is made up of “selfish” segments of DNA, propagating themselves for their own purposes without doing anything useful for their host.

Even for evolutionary biologists, it’s sometimes a mental stretch to come to grips with the idea we would dissolve into a bunch of selfish genes if not for evolutionary pressures on the rest of the genome to keep order.

“It’s always fascinated me that the genome itself is not this blueprint – it’s a society of genes where there is all this evolutionary activity going on in its own right,” he says.

“So applying evolutionary theory to the genome is just as exciting as using the genome to ask evolutionary questions.”