Boris Igić : A fertile mind

© 2010 Matthew Gilson

Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences, University of Illinois at Chicago. Age: 33

In 1997, Boris Igić, a junior at Washington University in St. Louis, was pursuing a degree in history. But after the third meeting of his first-ever course on evolution, he rushed out the classroom door and made a beeline to the registrar’s office, where he switched his major to biology. A few months later, Igić handed in the first science term paper he’d ever written, an analysis of the genetic basis of plant self-incompatibility (SI)—a plant’s ability to recognize and reject its own pollen—in three distantly related plant families. He got a B+. Four years after that, at the end of his first year of graduate school, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a refined version of that paper.1 This past August, Igić, now...

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Following up on that work in his own lab, Igić and collaborators measured speciation and extinction rates of flowering-plant species with and without SI. They found that species are constantly losing SI and acquiring the ability to self-fertilize, because this allows individuals to beget offspring more quickly under a variety of conditions. But they are also far more likely to go extinct, presumably because of their lack of genetic diversity. “Loss of self-incompatibility is an unintentionally overplayed evolutionary gambit, one which rarely pays off,” says Igić.

DISCUSSION: Igić continues to work on SI and finding new ways to approach it experimentally.3 “He has a great depth of knowledge about what’s been done in the field,” says Goldberg. “And he’s good at seeing gaps where things don’t add up.”

Literature Cited
1. B. Igić, J.R. Kohn, “Evolutionary relationships among self-incompatibility RNases,” PNAS, 98:13167-71, 2001. (Cited 107 times,
2. B. Igić et al., “Ancient polymorphism reveals unidirectional breeding system transitions,” PNAS, 103:1359-63, 2006. (Cited 35 times)
3. E. Goldberg et al., “Species selection maintains self-incompatibility,” Science, in press.

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