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Ecogenomics Fresh from ORNL, DiFazio Brings Poplar to WVU

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After working to complete the final draft of poplar genome sequence this year, Stephen DiFazio has been occupied with the hard part — writing it up. “Working on the Populus paper is occupying 200 percent of my time,” he acknowledges.

DiFazio’s even-tempered approach to publication is admirable, especially in light of his busy fall schedule. In early October, after more than three years as a key member of the Oak Ridge National Lab team that led the DOE-funded poplar research effort, DiFazio moved on to West Virginia University to take up a post as assistant professor in the biology department.

University life will allow DiFazio to continue research on the poplar and its associated fauna. One of his projects includes the sequencing of mycorrhizal fungi, beneficial, root-dwelling symbionts essential for the health and nutrition of the poplar. This ties in with his long-term plans to sequence mesocosms — “the tree and all its associated organisms” — to examine how these assemblages change with different environmental conditions.

DiFazio’s work takes him out of the lab, beyond the greenhouse, and into the wild at times. Working with natural populations is exciting for DiFazio, and he enjoys “taking a fine-grained understanding of the organization of the genome and seeing how that translates into the wild systems” to look at how “diversity is structured across the landscape, even across populations, and how that relates to environmental gradients.”

Not to say there aren’t significant challenges in DiFazio’s chosen field: “spatial and temporal variation, which are tremendous in natural populations” leads to major sampling problems. While the sequencing of plant genomes has yielded a mass of information, there is still the problem of how information at the macromolecular level translates into higher levels of organization.

The return to academia means that DiFazio had to bid farewell to ORNL’s high-end facilities, including the two-gigabase per month sequencing capability of the Joint Genome Institute, but he is ready to continue his ecogenomic investigations with traditional university lab offerings. WVU’s biology department has “all the basics you need to do molecular genetics,” he says. A bioinformaticist foremost, DiFazio will add a computational facility to those basics.

Although he did have an appointment at the University of Tennessee while at Oak Ridge, DiFazio is looking forward to full-time teaching. “I much prefer an academic setting overall, and teaching really keeps you on top of your field,” he says, adding that he most prizes “interaction with students.”

— Jen Crebs

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