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Michael Freitag in front of wooden backdrop

Molecular geneticist named AAAS fellow

By Debbie Farris
Michael Freitag, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics

Michael Freitag, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics, has been awarded the distinction of fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Fellows are selected based on “efforts toward advancing science applications that are deemed scientifically or socially distinguished.”

He joins two other researchers from the College of Science who were named AAAS fellows in 2018: David Maddison, a professor of integrative biology, and Mas Subramanian, the Milton Harris Chair in Materials Science. This brings the total of AAAS fellows in the College of Science to 16.

Freitag was honored in the field of biological sciences for contributions to fungal genetics and genomics, particularly in dissection of fungal centromeres and chromatin function, including the invention or use of cell biological tools to interrogate cell polarization, according to a statement by AAAS. Freitag is also a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology.

Freitag was among 416 AAAS members awarded the distinction of AAAS fellow this year. He will be introduced as a new fellow on February 16, 2019, in Washington, D.C., during the AAAS annual meeting.

“Michael has earned this well-deserved recognition for his extraordinary work in fungal genomics. He has certainly distinguished himself as one of the most renowned scientists in the field of fungal biology worldwide,” said Roy Haggerty, the dean of the College of Science at Oregon State. “I am truly honored to have him in our College.”

Freitag researches how genes are regulated by DNA or protein modifications, and as part of that work has found a way to unlock the ability of fungi to produce new molecules that could be medically important. He has published more than 100 papers in prestigious journals, such as Nature, Science,Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and Genome Research. In the past 10 years, Freitag has published 66 papers and received more than 8,500 citations for his work.

He is renowned for his 2010 work pioneering the “ChIP-seq” approach in filamentous fungi. ChIP-seq is a high-throughput approach to obtain genome-wide maps showing which parts of a cell’s DNA make direct contacts with proteins. As one colleague put it, this work “made his lab a training ground for researchers from the United States, Europe, Asia and Australia to learn ChIP-seq and its computationally intensive analyses.”

In 2013, Freitag was co-author on a paper that explored deciphering the “cryptic genome” of the rice pathogen Fusarium fujikuroi, which revealed complex regulation of secondary metabolism and novel metabolites. A second 2013 study from his lab showed the mechanistic basis for this phenomenon, a specific modification on histone proteins.

While on sabbatical in The Netherlands and Germany in 2014-15, Freitag presented 14 seminars to scientists and students across Europe.

The focus of Freitag’s research is epigenetics, the study of changes in organisms caused by the modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself. Specifically, Freitag’s team seeks to understand how genome defense systems and epigenetic silencing phenomena shape and maintain eukaryotic genomes and “epigenomes.” Epigenomes are the sum of differential DNA or protein modifications that result in heritable chromatin states not encoded in the DNA sequence.

This year Freitag received a 4-year, $840K grant from the National Science Foundation for his project “Control and Function of Chromatin-mediated Gene Silencing in Fungi.”

In addition, he won the College’s 2017 Milton Harris Award in Basic Research for his outstanding research on how chromatin proteins shape eukaryotic genomes and epigenetic mechanisms of regulating DNA transcription through the use of filamentous fungi model systems. In 2016, he led the College’s undergraduate summer research program, SURE Science.

Colleagues describe Freitag as among “the most respected scientists in the field of fungal biology.”

“Since Michael’s arrival at OSU in 2006, he has built a fantastically productive and internationally recognized basic research program,” said Andrew Karplus, head of the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics.