Joseph Thornton studies the mechanisms by which proteins evolve new functions. He has played a key role in advancing a new functional synthesis in molecular evolution, which brings the experimental techniques of molecular biology and biochemistry to bear on questions about evolutionary history and, in turn, employs historical analysis to reveal how and why present-day biological molecules work as they do. He has developed ancestral gene resurrection—computational reconstruction of ancestral gene sequences followed by experimental techniques to physically re-create them, characterize their structures and functions, and identify the genetic changes and biochemical mechanisms that caused new functions to evolve. Much of his group’s work has focused on reconstructing the evolution of such complex molecular systems as signaling by estrogens and other hormones.
Thornton has received numerous awards, including the US Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation, the Early Career Scientist award from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Sloan Foundation Fellowship in Computational and Evolutionary Biology. Before coming to UChicago, Thornton was a member of the faculty of the University of Oregon.
He earned his PhD in biological sciences from Columbia University in 2000 and his BA from Yale University in English. Between those degrees, he worked as an environmental activist for Greenpeace and authored the seminal book on global chemical pollution, Pandora’s Poison: Chlorine, Health, and a New Environmental Strategy (MIT Press, Cambridge, 2000).
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