University Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics Michael Freitag will present the 2022 F.A. Gilfillan Memorial Lecture, “Our lives among the peaks: Tales of ChIPs, enrichment and decay.”
RSVP for the Gilfillan Lecture
hybrid event Tuesday, May 3 at 5:30 p.m.
In his talk, Freitag, a molecular geneticist, will outline the personal and scientific journeys that brought him to Oregon from Germany, his homeland. He will touch on a wide variety of topics in cell biology, gene regulation and epigenetics, highlighting how foundational work with fungi as reference organisms paves the way for work in agriculture and biomedical research.
Mushrooms, our DNA relatives
“Fungi lend themselves well to laboratory teaching and provide us with an excellent, but still underutilized resource for new materials and pharmaceuticals that is far less costly than working on, for example, mice,” explained Freitag, who joined Oregon State in 2006.
"At the cellular level, fungi are surprisingly similar to humans,” he said. “They actually are more closely related to us than to plants, which many people don't realize. But they are very closely related to us in evolutionary time and can help us get the big picture very quickly.”
Freitag, an AAAS fellow, is at the center of fungal epigenetics and chromosome structure research and has far-reaching influence in the field. His colleagues describe him as “among the most respected scientists in the field of fungal biology” and a world-wide leader and innovator. His lab is a magnet for researchers from around the world.
“At the cellular level, fungi are surprisingly similar to humans. They actually are more closely related to us than to plants, which many people don't realize.”
Much of Freitag’s work has been on the sequencing and assembly of complete fungal genomes, light regulation and the circadian clock, the mechanisms of control and function of DNA methylation, and mechanisms of gene regulation by chromatin modifications, the latter two being examples of “epigenetic regulation.”
Broadly explained, this area of research delves into how cells regulate their genes to develop, communicate and carry out specific tasks throughout the body. Gene regulation refers to the mechanisms that act to induce or repress the expression of a gene.
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.”
Scientific discoveries of a lifetime
Freitag shared that among the most rewarding aspects of his career are “those few times when you have this feeling and the experience that a scientist has once in a while – where you see something that you absolutely know nobody ever has seen before” such as detecting a mutation he sought for two years or seeing green fluorescent protein (GFP) work in fungus for the first time. “Those feelings, they get you hooked. It's like the cocaine of science.”
Also gratifying for him has been teaching alongside respected colleagues and engaging with students one-on-one in the lab where he is able to individually help students solve problems from one station to the next.
“Those few times when you have this feeling and the experience that a scientist has once in a while ... those feelings, they get you hooked. It's like the cocaine of science.”
Freitag’s end goal is doing foundational research, or exploratory research, to create new knowledge. “Certainly, some of the things we do yield human health implications in the long run. But that's not the purpose of our work. We do foundational work that will be applied to research aiming to solve specific problems later.”
The study of gene regulation is foundational to the design of many potential targeted therapies, for example. Dysregulation of normal genes or mutant alleles of genes are involved in the development of many illnesses, including cancer.
A quest for the next 50 years
Freitag said one frontier in the field is uncovering how our genetic makeup determines what we look like and how we act, or “how we get from DNA to why you look like you, and I look like I do. We really don’t understand how that works in any organism yet. So that's for the next 50 years to figure out, right?”
Before he arrived at OSU, Freitag was already a recognized contributor in his field based on his 11 years as a senior scientist at University of Oregon. In his 16 years at OSU, his impact has grown tremendously. He has built a highly productive and internationally recognized research program, developed and collaboratively shared new technologies, and served the department, the College and his field through professional service and leadership roles.
After studying forestry in Germany, Freitag obtained an M.S. in Forest Products at Oregon State in 1989, and his Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from the Oregon Graduate Institute of Science & Technology in 1996, which merged with the Oregon Health & Sciences University in 2001.
The F.A. Gilfillan Memorial Award recognizes achievements in science by honoring a faculty member in the College who demonstrates a long and exceptional scientific career with nationally and globally recognized scholarly achievements.
Freitag has published 112 papers in prestigious journals, such as Nature, Science, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and Genome Research and has received more than 13,00 citations for his work. He has given 42 talks to international audiences and has served as the organizer or session chair in 10 national and international conferences during his career.
His research has had continuous financial support at Oregon State, summing to over $7 million. Currently, his work is supported by three grants – from the National Science Foundation for his project “Control and Function of Chromatin-mediated Gene Silencing in Fungi”; from the NIH for a collaboration on “Transcriptional Repression by Polycomb Repressive Complex 2”; and from the USA-Israel Binational Science Foundation on a collaboration on “Mismatch Repair and Chromatin Structure in Fusarium,” for a total of ~$1.5M in active support since 2019.
In March, Freitag was named a 2022 University Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics. For that honor, he will give an OSU lecture on May 20 titled, "Epigenetics: I Know It When I See It."
The remarkable nature and extent of Freitag’s sustained and broad impact in his field was attested to at the national level by his election in 2018 as an AAAS Fellow and the American Academy of Microbiology, both for his contributions to fungal genetics and genomics, particularly in the “dissection of fungal centromeres and chromatin function, including the invention or use of cell biological tools to interrogate cell polarization.”
In 2017, Freitag won the College of Science’s 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.