Seth O’Conner, Ph.D.
Mississippi State University – Biological Sciences
Corbin Jones, Ph.D.
Before coming to UNC, I received my Ph.D. in Biological Sciences from Mississippi State University under the mentorship of Dr. Ling Li. I used bioinformatic, wet lab, and agronomic approaches to investigate the evolutionary origin and function of Arabidopsis thaliana orphan genes—genes that only exist in a given species or lineage. My evolutionary work introduced a new theory I termed “Mitochondrial Fostering”, whereby plant mitochondrial genomes, which are much larger and more dynamic than their animal counterparts, are involved in the evolution of de novo genes. Further, based on the past functional studies of a particular A. thaliana orphan gene, Qua Quine Starch (QQS), my work identified a Glycine max (soybean) transcription factor that, when overexpressed in soybean, led to plants with increased seed protein, increased broad disease resistance, and expedited maturity. In addition, my project used CRISPR technology to generate non-transgenic soybean plants with increased seed protein content. Altogether, my work demonstrated the evolutionary and practical importance of studying orphan genes in plants. In addition to my research at MSU, I also had the privilege to mentor many undergraduate students and two high school students in their own independent research projects.
At UNC I will be working in the lab of Dr. Corbin Jones to further understand the tempo and mode of de novo gene evolution in flies (Drosophila species) and humans. This work will not only reveal important evolutionary aspects but will also open the door to functional studies on otherwise typically overlooked genes. Having started out in plant systems, I am looking forward to working with animal systems as this will not only expand my research experience but also allow me to connect to students with a broad range of research interests. Overall, I am excited about being a part of the SPIRE program because its objective is to foster the very type of Academic I wish to be: an exceptional scientific researcher, educator, mentor, and advocate for diversity in STEM.