Joseph R. Ecker
Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory
Director, Genomic Analysis Laboratory
Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation Investigator
Salk International Council Chair in Genetics
Joseph R. Ecker, a professor in the Plant Biology Laboratory, is one of the nation's leading authorities on the molecular biology and genetics of plants. Ecker was a principal investigator in the multinational project that sequenced the genome of Arabidopsis thaliana, a modest weed that has become a model organism for the study of plant genetics. This wild mustard variety is the first plant to have its genome sequenced, an achievement expected to have widespread implications for agriculture and perhaps human medicine as well.
Ecker is also widely regarded as one of the foremost experts on how the gaseous hormone ethylene regulates a variety of basic plant processes. For agriculture, ethylene gas is a vital chemical messenger important for such processes as fruit ripening and how plants respond to pathogenic organisms.
"Nature vs. nurture, genes vs. environment—what is more important? My group is interested in understanding the roles of genetic and 'epigenetic' processes in cell growth and development. By understanding how the genome and epigenome talk to one another, we hope to be able to untangle the complexity of gene regulatory processes that underlie development and disease in plants and humans."
Although the human genome sequence lists almost every single DNA base of the roughly 3 billion bases that make up a human genome, it doesn't tell biologists much about how its function is regulated. That job belongs to the epigenome, the layer of genetic control beyond the regulation inherent in the sequence of the genes themselves. Being able to study the epigenome in its entirety promises a better understanding of how genome function is regulated in health and disease, as well as how gene expression is influenced by diet and the environment.
One of the ways epigenetic signals can tinker with genetic information is through DNA methylation, a chemical modification of one letter, C (cytosine), of the four letters (A, G, C, and T) that comprise our DNA. In the last couple of years, Ecker's laboratory started to zero in on genomic methylation patterns, which are essential for normal development and associated with a number of key cellular processes, including carcinogenesis.
To ascertain how the epigenome of a differentiated cell differs from the epigenome of a pluripotent stem cell, his team used an ultra-high-throughput methodology to determine precisely whether or not each C in the genome is methylated and to layer the resulting epigenomic map upon the exact genome it regulates. The study revealed a highly dynamic, yet tightly controlled, landscape of chemical signposts known as methyl groups and resulted in the first detailed map of the human epigenome, comparing the epigenomes of human embryonic stem cells and differentiated connective cells from the lung called fibroblasts. The head-to-head comparison brought to light a novel DNA methylation pattern unique to stem cells, which may explain how stem cells establish and maintain their pluripotent state.
Now that they are able to create high-resolution maps of the human epigenome, Ecker's group will begin to examine how it changes during normal development as well as in a variety of disease states.
Standing, left to right: Shelly Wanamaker, Michael Ho, Junshi Yazaki, Huaming Chen, Liang Song, Shao-shan Carol Huang, Hong Qiao, Mingtang Xie, Anna Bartlett, Mark Urich, Rosa Castanon, Raul Carlos Serrano, Bennett Ouchi, Alanna Gordon, Cesar Barragan, Lantian Gai
Sitting, left to right: Nancy Benson, Alice Kim, Rick McCosh, Mark Zander, Bob Schmitz, Matt Schultz, Ronan O'Malley, Joe Ecker, Joe Nery, Adeline Goubil, Mat Lewsey, Bruce Jow, Thomas Ng, Justin Sandoval, Sage Davis
Alonso, J.M., Stepanova, A.N., Leisse, T.J., Kim, C.J., Chen, H., Shinn, P., Stevenson, D.K., Zimmerman, J., Barajas, P., Cheuk, R., Gadrinab, C., Heller, C., Jeske, A., Koesema, E., Meyers, C.C., Parker, H., Prednis, L., Ansari, Y., Choy, N., Deen, H., Geralt, M., Hazari, N., Hom, E., Karnes, M., Mulholland, C., Ndubaku, R., Schmidt, I., Guzman, P., Aguilar-Henonin, L., Schmid, M., Weigel, D., Carter, D.E., Marchand, T., Risseeuw, E., Brogden, D., Zeko, A., Crosby, W.L., Berry, C.C. and Ecker. J.R., (2003) Genome-wide Insertional mutagenesis of Arabidopsis thaliana. Science. 301:653-657.
Yamada K, Lim J, Dale JM, Chen H, Shinn P, Palm CJ, Southwick AM, Wu HC, Kim C, Nguyen M, Pham P, Cheuk R, Karlin-Newmann G, Liu SX, Lam B, Sakano H, Wu T, Yu G, Miranda M, Quach HL, Tripp M, Chang CH, Lee JM, Toriumi M, Chan MM, Tang CC, Onodera CS, Deng JM, Akiyama K, Ansari Y, Arakawa T, Banh J, Banno F, Bowser L, Brooks S, Carninci P, Chao Q, Choy N, Enju A, Goldsmith AD, Gurjal M, Hansen NF, Hayashizaki Y, Johnson-Hopson C, Hsuan VW, Iida K, Karnes M, Khan S, Koesema E, Ishida J, Jiang PX, Jones T, Kawai J, Kamiya A, Meyers C, Nakajima M, Narusaka M, Seki M, Sakurai T, Satou M, Tamse R, Vaysberg M, Wallender EK, Wong C, Yamamura Y, Yuan S, Shinozaki K, Davis RW, Theologis A, and Ecker JR. (2003) Empirical analysis of transcriptional activity in the Arabidopsis genome. Science. 302:842-846.
Guo, H., and Ecker J.R. (2003) Plant Responses to Ethylene Gas Are Mediated by SCFEBF1/EBF2-dependent Proteolysis of EIN3 transcription factor. Cell. 115: 667-677.
Wang, K. L., Yoshida, H., Lurin, C., and Ecker, J. R. (2004). Regulation of ethylene gas biosynthesis by the Arabidopsis ETO1 protein. Nature. 428, 945-950.
Li, H., Johnson, P., Stepanova, A., Alonso, J. M., and Ecker, J. R. (2004). Convergence of signaling pathways in the control of differential cell growth in Arabidopsis. Dev Cell. 7, 193-204.
Mockler TC, Chan S, Sundaresan A, Chen H, Jacobsen SE, Ecker JR. (2005) Applications of DNA tiling arrays for whole-genome analysis. Genomics. 85(1):1-15.
Alonso, J.M. and J.R. Ecker (2006) Moving forward in reverse: genetic technologies to enable genome-wide phenomic screens in Arabidopsis. Nat. Rev. Genet. 7:524-
Olmedo, G., G. Guo, B.D. Gregory, S.D. Nourizadeh, L. Aguilar-Henonin, H. Li, H. An, P. Guzman, and J.R. Ecker (2006) ETHYLENE-INSENSITIVE5 encodes a 5'→3' exoribonuclease required for regulation of the EIN3-targeting F-box proteins EBF1/2. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, |. 103: 13286-13293
Zhang, X., Yazaki, J., Sundaresan, A. Cokus,S., Chan, S.W.-L., Chen, H., Henderson, I.R., Shinn, P., Pellegrini, M., Jacobsen, S.E., and Ecker, J.R. (2006) Genome-wide high-resolution mapping and functional analysis of DNA methylation in Arabidopsis. Cell. 126, 1189-1201
Clark, RM, Schweikert, G., Toomajian, C., Ossowski, S., Zeller, G., Shinn, P., Warthmann, N., Hu, T.T., Fu, G., Hinds. D.A. , Chen, H., Frazer, K.A., Huson, D.H., Schölkopf, B., Nordborg, M., Rätsch, G., Ecker. J. R., and Weigel, D. (2007) Common sequence polymorphisms shaping genetic diversity in Arabidopsis thaliana. Science. 317(5836):338-42
Lister, R., O'Malley, R.C., Tonti-Filippini, J., Gregory, B.D., Berry, C.C., Millar, A.H. and Ecker, J.R. (2008) Highly integrated single-base resolution maps of the epigenome in Arabidopsis. Cell. 133:1-14 | Download the article
Lister, R., Pelizzola, M., Dowen, R.H, Hawkins, R.D., Hon, G., Tonti-Filippini, J., Nery, J.R., Lee, L., Ye, Z., Ngo, Q-M., Edsall, L., Antosiewicz-Bourget, J., Stewart, R., Ruotti, V., Millar, A.H., Thomson, J.A., Ren, B. and Ecker, J.R. (2009) Human DNA methylomes at base resolution show widespread epigenomic differences. Nature. 462:315-322
Lister R., Pelizzola M., Kida Y.S., Hawkins R.D., Nery J.R., Hon G., Antosiewicz-Bourget J., O'Malley R., Castanon R., Klugman S., Downes M., Yu R., Stewart R., Ren B., Thomson J.A., Evans R.M. and Ecker J.R. (2011) Hotspots of aberrant epigenomic reprogramming in human induced pluripotent stem cells. Nature Mar 3;471(7336):68-73. Epub 2011 Feb 2.
Evidence for network evolution in an Arabidopsis interactome map. Arabidopsis Interactome Mapping Consortium. Science. 2011 333(6042):601-7.
Mukhtar, M.S., Carvunis, A.R., Dreze, M., Epple, P., Steinbrenner, J., Moore, J., Tasa,n M., Galli, M., Hao, T., Nishimura, M.T., Pevzner, S.J., Donovan, S.E., Ghamsari, .L, Santhanam, B., Romero, V., Poulin, M.M., Gebreab, F., Gutierrez, B.J., Tam, S., Monachello, D., Boxem, M., Harbort, C.J., McDonald, N., Gai, L., Chen. H., He, Y., European Union Effectoromics Consortium, Vandenhaute, J., Roth, F.P., Hill, D.E., Ecker, J.R., Vidal, M., Beynon, J., Braun, P., Dangl, J.L. (2011) Independently evolved virulence effectors converge onto hubs in a plant immune system network. Science. 333(6042):596-601.
Schmitz, R.J., Schultz, M.D., Lewsey, M.G., O'Malley, R.C., Urich, M.A., Libiger, O., Schork, N.J., Ecker, J.R. (2011) Transgenerational Epigenetic Instability Is a Source of Novel Methylation Variants. Science. 334(6054):369-73. Abstract | Download the article
Qiao, H., Shen, Z., Huang, S.S., Schmitz, RJ., Urich, M.A., Briggs, S.P. and Ecker, J.R. (2012) Processing and Subcellular Trafficking of ER-Tethered EIN2 Control Response to Ethylene Gas. Science 338(6105):390-393. Abstract
Schmitz, R.J., Schultz, M.D., Urich, M.A., Nery, J.R., Pelizzola, M., Libiger, O., Alix, A., McCosh, R.B., Chen, H., Schork, N.J. and Ecker, J.R. (2013) Patterns of population epigenomic diversity. Nature. Mar 14;495(7440):193-8. doi: 10.1038/nature11968. Epub 2013 Mar 6. Link
Chang, K.N., Zhong, S., Weirauch, M.T., Hon, G., Pelizzola, M., Li, H., Huang, S.S., Schmitz, R.J., Urich, M.A., Kuo, D., Nery, J.R., Qiao, H., Yang, A., Jamali, A., Chen, H., Ideker, T., Ren, B., Bar-Joseph, Z., Hughes, T.R. and Ecker, J.R. (2013) Temporal transcriptional response to ethylene gas drives growth hormone cross-regulation in Arabidopsis. Elife. 2013 Jun 11;2:e00675. Link
Lister, R., Mukamel, E.A., Nery, J.R., Urich, M., Puddifoot, C.A., Johnson, N.D., Lucero, J., Huang, Y., Dwork, A.J., Schultz, M.D., Yu, M., Tonti-Filippini, J., Heyn, H., Hu, S., Wu, J.C., Rao, A., Esteller, M., He, C., Haghighi, F.G., Sejnowski, T.J., Behrens, M.M. and Ecker, JR. (2013) Global epigenomic reconfiguration during mammalian brain development. Science. 2013 Aug 9;341(6146):1237905. Epub 2013 Jul 4. Link
Salk News Releases
Salk scientists reveal epigenome maps of the human body’s major organs
June 1, 2015
Salk scientists Joseph Ecker and Dennis O'Leary elected to American Academy of Arts & Sciences
April 23, 2015
Salk scientists receive $3 million for BRAIN Initiative grant
September 30, 2014
Some stem cell methods closer to "gold standard" than others
July 2, 2014
Salk Institute and Stanford University to lead new $40 million stem cell genomics center
January 31, 2014
Unique epigenomic code identified during human brain development
July 4, 2013
Scientists identify thousands of plant genes activated by ethylene gas
June 11, 2013
Hidden layer of genome unveils how plants may adapt to environments throughout the world
March 6, 2013
More than 3,000 epigenetic switches control daily liver cycles
December 10, 2012
Two more Salk scientists elected as AAAS Fellows
November 29, 2012
Discovery may help protect crops from stressors
August 30, 2012
Planting the seeds of defense
August 7, 2012
Are genes our destiny?
September 15, 2011
Scientists take a giant step for people - with plants!
July 28, 2011
Salk scientist Joseph Ecker, appointed as Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation Investigator
June 16, 2011
Cell reprogramming leaves a "footprint" behind
February 2, 2011
What drives our genes? Salk researchers map the first complete human epigenome
October 14, 2009
Why fruits ripen and flowers die:
Salk scientists discover how key plant hormone is triggered
February 10, 2009
Not your grandfather's transcriptome-plant biologists discover unexpected proteins affecting small RNAs
May 15, 2008
Charting the Epigenome
April 17, 2008
New plant study reveals a "deeply hidden" layer of the transcriptome
December 27, 2007
Charting ever-changing genomes
July 19, 2007
National Academy of Sciences honors Joe Ecker with Carty Award
January 25, 2007
In a technical tour de force, Salk scientists take a global view of the epigenome
August 31, 2006
Salk scientist Joe Ecker elected to National Academy of Sciences
April 25, 2006
Gene Chip Study Could Lead to New Hybrid Plants
October 31, 2003
Salk Study Advances Understanding of Plant Genes and Their Function
July 31, 2003
First Plant Genome Sequenced: Salk Scientists Part Of International Effort
December 13, 2000
Awards and Honors
- 2015 American Academy of Arts and Sciences
- 2011 Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation
- 2011 George W. Beadle Award, Genetics Society of America
- 2009 #2 Scientific Discovery of the Year 2009-TIME Magazine
- 2007 National Academy of Sciences, John J. Carty Award for the Advancement of Science
- 2006 Elected, National Academy of Sciences
- 2005 American Society for Plant Biology, Martin Gibbs Medal
- 2004 Scientific American 50 Research Leader of the Year
- 2004 International Plant Growth Substances Association Distinguished Research Award
- 2001 Kumho Science International Award in Plant Molecular Biology
- President International Society for Plant Molecular Biology
San Diego Center for Molecular Agriculture - for information on genetically modified crops
TIME Ranks Epigenome Study No. 2 Scientific Discovery of 2009
Cell reprogramming leaves a "footprint" behind
February 02, 2011
Reprogramming adult cells to recapture their youthful "can-do-it-all" attitude appears to leave an indelible mark, found researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. When the team, led by Joseph Ecker, PhD., a professor in the Genomic Analysis Laboratory, scoured the epigenomes of so-called induced pluripotent stem cells base by base, they found a consistent pattern of reprogramming errors. Read more>>
What drives our genes? Salk researchers map the first complete human epigenome
September 9, 2010
Although the human genome sequence faithfully lists (almost) every single DNA base of the roughly 3 billion bases that make up a human genome, it doesn't tell biologists much about how its function is regulated. Now, researchers at the Salk Institute provide the first detailed map of the human epigenome, the layer of genetic control beyond the regulation inherent in the sequence of the genes themselves. Read more>>