Steven A. Lommel was born August 6, 1956, in Modesto, CA. He completed his B.S. degree in biology at the University of San Francisco in 1978. He went on to do his graduate work in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of California-Berkeley supported on a William Carroll Smith Fellowship. He completed his M.S. degree in 1981 and his Ph.D. degree in 1983 under the direction of T. Jack Morris. His master’s research resulted in publications describing one of the first applications of indirect ELISA for routine detection of plant viruses. His Ph.D. research on the comparative virology of plant and insect viruses resulted in one of the first papers on the molecular characterization of an insect nodavirus. Upon graduation, he was appointed assistant professor of plant pathology at Kansas State University, where he was awarded a prestigious Ciba/McKnight Foundation Fellowship. In 1988, he moved to the Department of Plant Pathology at North Carolina State University (NCSU), quickly rising through the ranks to associate professor in 1991 and full professor in 1995. In addition to his research and teaching duties in the Department of Plant Pathology, he concurrently held split appointments as assistant director of the North Carolina Agricultural Research Service (1992–2001) and then as associate vice chancellor for research (2001–2002). He is currently a professor of plant pathology and genetics.
Lommel is recognized internationally for his research contributions to plant virus pathogenesis, evolution, taxonomy, and assembly. He is perhaps best known for his molecular characterization of Red clover necrotic mosaic virus (RCNMV), making this member of the plant dianthoviruses among the best characterized of any bipartite RNA plant virus. His research has resulted in this system being one of the premier models for understanding the process of virus cell-to-cell movement. He has published more than 10 papers describing the structure and function of a viral protein responsible for moving virus RNA from cell to cell. These contributions have helped to change our fundamental understanding of plant viral pathogenesis. His Plant Cell paper has been cited more than 150 times. His research on RCNMV RNA interactions has led to a second paradigm-shifting body of research with the discovery of a novel mechanism of RNA-mediated transcriptional regulation. In a series of papers, highlighted by his highly cited 1998 Science publication, he demonstrated that in trans RNA interactions are involved in RCNMV gene regulation. This discovery has broad implications in biology and provides an important evolutionary precedent supporting the RNA origin of life theory. Most recently, he extended the importance of the phenomena of in trans RNA interactions, showing their role in virus assembly of multiple RNAs within a single virus particle.
Lommel’s lab has also established collaborations that are providing fundamental contributions to the study of virus structure and assembly using the RCNMV model system. His presentations at recent meetings have elegantly described one of the few high-resolution structural analyses showing the specific location and interaction of RNA within an isometric virus particle. These experiments have pioneered innovative collaborative studies by his lab examining use of RCNMV as a nanoparticle engineered to target specific cancer cells to deliver therapeutic agents.
Lommel is also codirector of the Tobacco Genome Initiative, a privately funded genomics research program at NCSU focused on sequencing the tobacco genome. Through his vision and leadership, an international Nicotiana benthamiana working group was also created. The establishment of this large collaborative effort to sequence expressed genes has resulted in the definition of some 15,000 genes that will soon be available on chips for gene expression array analysis. This will become a hugely valuable genomic tool because N. benthamiana has emerged as a model system of choice for studying host–pathogen interactions by many plant virologists and other plant pathology researchers interested in disease resistance mechanisms. His leadership on this project has brought knowledge and resources together to make this model plant of tremendous value to the scientific community as a whole.
Lommel has an exemplary record of university and professional service. He was the assistant director of the North Carolina Agriculture Research Service in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences from 1992 to 2001. He currently serves as the assistant vice chancellor for research and graduate studies with responsibility for helping coordinate research programs between life sciences and agriculture. He also serves as a special scientific advisor to the U.S. EPA on the release of transgenic crops and on numerous university, state, federal, and international scientific boards, committees, and funding panels. He has served in numerous editorial capacities, is currently an editor of Virus Research, and has served on the editorial boards of Phytopathology, MPMI, and Virology. He also contributes significantly to the plant virus community, serving as chair of the APS Virology Committee, convener of numerous sessions at meetings, and chair of the ICTV Tombusviridae subcommittee for over a decade.
Lommel has an excellent record in teaching. He has contributed to several general plant pathology, biotechnology, and graduate-level virology courses. His teaching of the summer biotechnology courses in particular and his advanced molecular virology course have been very well received by students. He has trained numerous graduate students (17) and postdoctoral associates (11), most of whom have gone on to careers as professional scientists in industry and academia.
Lommel’s accomplishments in research, teaching, and service are outstanding. He has more than 100 peer-reviewed publications and holds three patents. His elucidation of the molecular mechanisms of plant viral movement proteins and the identification of the first RNA–RNA interaction regulating gene expression are widely recognized as outstanding contributions, earning him international respect in the plant virology community. His current research on virus structure and assembly is both unique and innovative and could potentially lead to practical applications of the use of plant viruses as nanocargo vessels for delivery of therapeutics to cancer cells.