U of T news

Stephen Wright, leader in evolutionary genomics, awarded E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship by NSERC

“This fellowship highlights the remarkable research environment at U of T”

This support from NSERC “will enable focused time and resources to launch our group into a number of new directions, including the evolutionary genomics of herbicide resistance,” Wright says (photo by NSERC)

Stephen Wright, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Toronto, has won a prestigious NSERC E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship for his pioneering research in the emerging field of evolutionary genomics.

Up to six Steacie Fellowships are awarded annually to enhance the career development of outstanding and highly promising scientists and engineers. A Steacie Fellowship was also awarded to Professor David Sinton of the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering for his work on photosynthetic microorganisms.

Wright's funding from the Steacie fellowship will enable new work on the fight against herbicide-resistant ‘super weeds’ – plants that are becoming a growing threat to global food security and the livelihood of millions of farmers.

At issue, Wright said, are the evolutionary characteristics that allow some weed species to rapidly evolve so that the “fittest” survive, regardless of the herbicide used.

Understanding how and why resistance evolves requires scientists with a rare combination of talents in genomics, plant science and computational biology. The Faculty of Arts & Science's Wright is such a scientist. Having just gained tenure in 2011, Wright is already internationally recognized as one of the world’s most influential scientists in the emerging field of evolutionary genomics.(Read more about Wright's work.)

Wright is one of five U of T scholars who were recognized with NSERC awards on Feb. 16. Along with Wright and fellow Steacie-winner Sinton, the U of T honorees include Professor Shana Kelley and University Professor Ted Sargent, who jointly received the Brockhouse Canada Prize for Interdisciplinary Research in Science and Engineering and Barbara Sherwood Lollar, University Professor in earth sciences, who won the prestigious John C. Polanyi Award for her pioneering research into billion-year-old water. 

Read more about Sherwood Lollar

Read more about Sargent and Kelley

Wright’s research has provided unprecedented insights into the structure, function and evolution of the genome – knowledge he is currently using to understand how weeds become resistant to herbicides.

“This fellowship highlights the remarkable research environment at U of T, where I have the tremendous opportunity to work with many fantastic students, postdoctoral fellows and colleagues in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology,” said Wright. “It will enable focused time and resources to launch our group into a number of new directions, including the evolutionary genomics of herbicide resistance.”

Wright and his team have shown that the pace of genome-wide adaptation occurs at a much higher rate than previously thought. Several studies published by his team over the last three years provide the first solid molecular evidence to support a theory biologists have long promoted: species that reproduce sexually (by exchanging genetic material), rather than asexually (reproduction via cloning) or via self-fertilization (when plants acts as both mother and father to their own seeds) are genetically healthier over time. The results suggest that many important crop species are more likely to go extinct in the face of environmental change.

Wright and his colleagues recently addressed one of the longest-standing mysteries in evolutionary biology: why genetic variation for traits in some species can be observed despite the expectation that natural selection will remove most variation. In a report published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last fall, the team – led by recent U of T doctoral student Emily Josephs, Wright annd Professor John Stinchcombe of EEB – identified an important role for recurring harmful mutations in maintaining genetic variation by examining a single, large population of the plant Capsella grandiflora.

“While the mutations are harmful in the present environment, they may become important sources of adaptation when environments change. Because the mutations enable genetic variation, they are theoretically responsible for ensuring adaptation over time,” Wright said.

“This possibly explains how some weeds, especially those that are sexual and have large populations, are able to evolve and survive, despite attempts to eradicate them.”

To date, Wright has published 75 peer-reviewed journal articles, garnering over 4,600 citations. His accomplishments were recognized in 2006 with the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship in Computational and Evolutionary Molecular Biology. His resources and methods are now widely used in both basic and applied research.

photo of Stephen Wright