Craig Pikaard earned his BS in Horticulture from Pennsylvania State University in 1980 and his PhD in Plant Physiology from Purdue University in 1985. He held research positions at Texas A&M University and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and spent nineteen years at Washington University in St. Louis before joining IU in 2009 as the Carlos O. Miller Chair of Plant Growth and Development.
Pikaard's groundbreaking work in epigenetics rates him "among the very best plant scientists in the world." Plant systems offer advantages over animal systems for studying epigenetics, and Craig "is without doubt at the forefront of the field." His two landmark 1997 papers, which together have been cited nearly 500 times according to Google Scholar, were the first to provide a mechanistic explanation - involving the epigenetic processes of gene silencing and DNA methylation - for the long-standing genetic puzzle known as nucleolar dominance, in which hybrid plants or animals express only one of their two sets of parental ribosomal RNA genes. Craig "has long been a leader…and has contributed more mechanistically to this field than all other labs combined."
More recently, Pikaard's group has identified and characterized two previously unknown forms of RNA polymerase that are required for gene silencing. "Pikaard is without a doubt the world leader in RNA polymerases in plants and his work has uncovered many mechanistic insights relevant across the life sciences… there are few people who have made as seminal contributions as Dr. Pikaard." This work has "vaulted him into the very top rank of international stars working in the large and hotly competitive field of epigenetics" where he is considered an "undisputed leader." The structural and functional characterization of these two novel RNA polymerases and their products and activities presents a considerable experimental challenge, and it is Craig's "unsurpassed ability to carry-out difficult and novel experiments" using approaches from biochemistry, genetics, and cell biology that has enabled him to make such outstanding progress.
Pikaard has received more than $10M in external research support since coming to IU and he currently holds two RO1 grants from the National Institutes of Health (few plant biologists have even a single NIH grant, and only a small fraction of these have two). Among Pikaard's many honors are the NIH National Research Service Award, Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and his 2011 selection as one of only 15 Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation Plant Investigators. He has given invited lectures throughout the United States and in Holland, Italy, United Kingdom, Korea, Poland, Austria, Australia, China, Germany, Canada, Switzerland, and Argentina. At IU, Professor Pikaard has mentored 11 past and 6 current PhD students, 16 past and 5 current postdoctoral fellows, and 10 undergraduate researchers.
Pikaard received the IU Bicentennial Medal in September 2020 in recognition of his distinguished contributions to Indiana University.