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Two biologists elected to National Academy of Sciences

Maria Harrison, the William H. Crocker Professor at Boyce Thompson Institute and adjunct professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science, and Mariana Wolfner, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics in the College of Arts and Sciences, are among 100 new members of the National Academy of Sciences, the academy announced April 30. 

Harrison and Wolfner are the 63rd and 64th Cornellians to be so honored since the inaugural elections in 1863. They are also among 40 women elected in 2019, the highest percentage of women elected in a single year.

Harrison’s lab group studies the mechanisms that flowering plants use to exchange nutrients with symbiotic soil fungi, research that could lead to reducing fertilizer use in agriculture.

Because much of the phosphorus in soil is poorly soluble and therefore unavailable to plants, farmers need to supply this nutrient via fertilizer, which is costly to both the farmer and the environment. Harrison’s lab studies the symbiotic association of plants and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, in which the plant trades carbon for phosphorus from the fungi.

Understanding the mechanisms of this exchange could help plant breeders generate strains of crops optimized to obtain phosphorus via the fungi and, ultimately, reduce phosphorus fertilizer usage.

“It is a tremendous honor to be elected to the National Academy, and I give much of the credit to the Harrison lab postdocs, students and research assistants, past and present, who have contributed to our research on arbuscular mycorrhizal symbiosis,” Harrison said.

Wolfner uses molecular biology and genetics to unravel the important reproductive processes that occur around the time a sperm fertilizes an egg. Much of her lab’s work focuses on fruit flies, a model for other animal systems. Many fruit fly genes and reproductive and developmental biology have counterparts and analogues in other animals, including humans, as well as in other insects – such as mosquitoes – that are vectors for diseases.

Wolfner, a Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow, has been a leader in investigating how seminal fluid proteins from the male modify the biology of females post-mating. She and her students use molecular techniques to identify these male proteins from fruit flies and dissect how they cause reproductive and behavioral changes in females.

In recent years, she has collaborated with Cornell entomologist Laura Harrington to apply this research to disease-carrying insects, such as mosquitoes. Since only female mosquitoes bite, feed on blood and spread diseases, the researchers are searching for ways to manipulate seminal fluid proteins to disrupt the females’ reproductive biology and behavior to limit the spread of such viruses as dengue, chikungunya and Zika.

“I feel very honored to be elected to an academy that includes so many of my heroes and mentors,” Wolfner said. “I am incredibly grateful to Cornell and my colleagues for the supportive and collaborative environment that fostered our studies, and to all the former and current members of my lab and our collaborators, whose work is what is really being honored by this election.”

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.