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Oct. 27, 2022

Searching for buckwheat’s origin

Jeffrey Fawcett, Senior Scientist

Please briefly describe your current research.

One of my current projects is to understand the origin of common, domesticated buckwheat (from which soba noodles are made) and its dispersal to Japan. The results should lead to identifying important genes that can be useful to improve the breeding of buckwheat. More generally, I aim to understand the genetic and evolutionary processes that are responsible for creating diversity on earth through large-scale genomic data analysis.

“My research is important for society because…”

Improving the yield and productivity of minor, underutilized crops is thought to be essential to future food security. We believe that the genomic approach we are using should help advance the breeding of buckwheat and serve as an example of what can be achieved with other minor crops.

Please describe your role at RIKEN.

Apart from conducting my own research projects, I interact with other iTHEMS scientists from different backgrounds, such as theoretical physics or mathematics, with the aim of facilitating interdisciplinary research and developing new projects.

What are some technologies that you use to conduct your research?

I have been using RIKEN’s HOKUSAI BigWaterfall (HBW) supercomputer, which is essential for analyzing large-scale genomic data. In addition, I collaborate with researchers that use the Radioactive Isotope Beam Factory (RIBF) at the RIKEN Nishina Center to generate mutants with chromosome rearrangements in the hope of uncovering new genomic functions.

Picture of Jeffrey Fawcett

How did you become interested in your current field of research?

I was fascinated by the genomes of biological organisms. On one hand, there are some common principles that apply across plants, animals and fungi, while on the other, it is so dynamic that there is a huge amount of diversity even between individuals of the same species.

What has been the most interesting discovery in your field in the last few years?

Continued advances in DNA sequencing technology over the past 10–20 years has been very important. As a result, I am now able to use the genome sequence data of a large number of species and individuals, which is very important when studying evolution.

What has been a memorable experience at RIKEN?

Interacting with pure mathematicians and theoretical physicists. Being a biologist, I never imagined I would be able to learn and even enjoy (at least some aspects of) mathematics and physics.

What do you wish you had known before you came to RIKEN and/or Japan?

That RIKEN’s Wako Campus is actually quite close to the center of Tokyo, with easy access by road, bus or train.

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