Recorded: 20 Feb 2001
She actually wrote a paper on the clonal analysis of the endosperm development using some of these techniques, but she was acutely aware of other sorts of pattern, patterns that weren't stochastic and actually were developmentally controlled. To some extent, that had led to her theories of epigenetics, in which she'd proposed that these controlling elements actually controlled development. Probably we wouldn't think of it in these terms now, but it turns out that epigenetics is crucially involved in development and that relationship is something you can now read in her papers. It's interesting. Her papers are easier to read now than they were twenty years ago or thirty years ago because the molecular basis of what she was saying is now known. We now know a lot more about what chromosomes are really constituted of and, of course, transposable elements have been molecularly isolated. So many of the interactions between genes are now much more easily thought about because we know the molecules involved. And then you can really start to see some of the really extraordinary things that she thought and proposed—especially about the nature of chromosomal organization. Heterochromatin was one of her major areas of research: knobs, heterochromatic knobs. It's actually been a real pleasure to be able to be part of the modern view of that. So now, with the genome project, and what we know about transposable elements, we've been able to interpret some of the things that she was saying then at a molecular level. So actually, it's funny, but it really is easier to read her work now than it was then.
Rob Martienssen is a plant molecular geneticist and professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. He received his Ph.D. from Cambridge University in 1986 and did postdoctoral research at the University of California, Berkeley.
As a young scientist, he worked closely with Barbara McClintock. He currently studies plant epigenetics and development using functional genomics. He was awarded the Kumho International Science Award in Plant Biology and Biotechnology (2001).