Joe Thornton works at the interface of evolutionary and molecular biology. He resurrects ancient genes and then uses molecular experiments to dissect the mechanisms by which they acquired their present-day functions.
After studying English literature at Yale University, Thornton spent a decade as an environmental activist, working with Greenpeace to stop global chemical pollution. He then pursued graduate and postdoctoral training in evolution and molecular biology at Columbia University and the American Museum of Natural History. While in graduate school, he also wrote the seminal book on chemical policy and pollution, Pandora’s Poison (MIT Press, 2001). He became an assistant professor at the University of Oregon in 2002 and in 2012 became a Professor of Human Genetics and Ecology & Evolution at the University of Chicago; he maintains research laboratories at both universities.
Thornton’s laboratory group has played a key role in establishing and articulating a new "functional synthesis" of molecular biology and evolution, which brings the decisive power of molecular experiments to bear on the fascinating questions of evolutionary biology. His group pioneered ancestral protein resurrection as a strategy for characterizing the mechanisms of protein evolution. Much of this work has focused on a complete reconstruction of the genetic and biochemical mechanisms by which steroid hormones and their receptor proteins—signaling molecules that play key roles in vertebrate development, reproduction, and behavior—evolved their present-day biological functions.
Thornton has received the White House’s U.S. Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, an Early Career Scientist award from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation, an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellowship, the Richard T. Jones New Investigator Award, and the Hans Falk Award from the National Institute for General Medical Sciences.
As a Guggenheim Fellow, he plans to write a book to articulate the conceptual and historical foundations of the functional synthesis, explain its methodologies, and examine the power and limitations of incorporating history into molecular biology and molecular mechanisms into the study of evolutionary change.