New faculty profile: Chris Hittinger

Chris Hittinger joined the faculty in the Department of Genetics as an assistant professor last summer.

Tell us about your career path to date.
Since I was a young child, I’ve been fascinated by the how diverse lifeforms evolve. An early obsession with dinosaurs gave way to a desire to understand how these changes are actually achieved. That’s why I became a genticist. I went to Southeast Missouri State University as an undergraduate and had two excellent research mentors, Allen Gathman and Walt Lilly. I did my PhD with Sean Carroll right here in Madison where I learned how to use model systems to rigorously answer big questions in evolutionary genetics. To gain broader training in genome-scale analyses, I went to Washington University in St. Louis as a postdoc with Mark Johnston, and I moved with him to the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

What is the main focus of your research program?
Carbon metabolism is the energy superhighway of life. We study the diversity and evolution of yeast carbon metabolism, which is controlled by a complex system of interacting genes that respond to different carbon sources and determine the organism’s energy-use strategy. Some yeasts readily ferment sugars into ethanol, even in the presence of oxygen, but most organisms (including many yeast species) prefer respiration. The biofuel industry currently exploits the highly refined trait of aerobic fermentation or Crabtree-Warburg Effect in Saccharomyces cerevisiae to produce ethanol. However, the yeasts currently in use are not able to convert some common sugars like xylose into ethanol efficiently enough to compete in the energy market. By understanding how evolution has sculpted and rewired yeast gene networks to meet their different ecological needs, we can better determine how to engineer complex biological systems to meet our energy needs.

What attracted you to the UW-Madison?
I was drawn back to Madison by the strength of programs in genetics, microbiology, and evolution here. There’s also a lot of exciting work going on with biofuels at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, and the Terraces don’t hurt either.