About Alex Harkess
Plant reproductive, evolutionary and comparative genomics
Alex Harkess, PhD, studies the weird plants on our planet. In his role as Faculty Investigator at HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, Harkess aims to understand how some plants have evolved unique ways to reproduce. For instance, asparagus, kiwifruit, strawberries, poplar trees, and beer hops are all plants that have evolved a sex chromosome pair, like an XY or ZW, that makes some plants exclusively produce male or female flowers.
“We’re a basic biology lab, and we study the ways across the tree of life that plants have evolved to reproduce differently,” Harkess says. “And once you do that, once you map out all of the ways a plant can reproduce sexually or asexually, then you can start to engineer those kinds of changes into crop plants.”
His lab uses classical botany and evolutionary biology to look across the tree of life to find cases in which plants have changed how they reproduce. They also use genetics and genomics to understand which genes are involved in the change in reproduction and use translational genomics to engineer those genetic changes into more agriculturally relevant plants in order to more finely control the breeding process.
In some crop species, the sex of the plant can influence taste, size, yield or overall survival. Pinpointing the genetic changes that make a plant male, female, or hermaphroditic is valuable to breeders and growers to produce a more robust, durable crop.
One thing that drives Harkess’ passion is thinking about plants on our planet as history, as diary entries of how our planet has changed. “We can learn a lot about how humans have evolved by studying how plants have evolved because we are all connected on this huge, grand tree of life through our DNA sequences,” Harkess says.
It is this passion that led Harkess to initiate collaborations with botanic gardens across the United States, including the Huntsville Botanic Garden. “Botanic gardens are some of the most valuable sources of biodiversity on our planet,” Harkess says. “Crop plants cannot be our sole focus, though. Keeping all of these fascinating species from across the tree of life alive is really critical for us to understand how traits can evolve over time.”
His lab uses these collaborations not only for research purposes to study a wide range of diverse plants, but also to educate the next generation of scientists about plant genomics and diversity.
Harkess came to HudsonAlpha in 2020 after spending four years with the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis. Harkess earned his PhD in Plant Biology from the University of Georgia and a BS in Botany from Miami University.