UC Davis Genome Center Founding Director Richard Michelmore Steps Down

Richard Michelmore is seated to the left of a framed piece of art made of a grid of multicolored squares.
After a 20-year tenure as founding director of the UC Davis Genome Center, Richard Michelmore is returning to his position as Distinguished Professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and to his research on plant pandemics. Pictured here is a collage of 140 individual watercolors, painted by past and present lab members, that was a gift to Michelmore for his 70th birthday. (Sasha Bakhter / UC Davis)

UC Davis Genome Center Founding Director Richard Michelmore Steps Down

During his 20-year tenure as founding director of the UC Davis Genome Center, Richard Michelmore, a Distinguished Professor in the Departments of Plant Sciences, Molecular and Cellular Biology, and Medical Microbiology and Immunology, recruited more than 20 faculty members, led the center to prominence as a hub of technology-driven biology, and made national headlines by implementing an innovative, community-scale saliva-based COVID test. Quite the legacy for someone who never wanted the job in the first place. 

I had no intention of being the Genome Center director,” says Michelmore, who had a major role in the center’s initial planning, which grew out of a call by then-provost Bob Grey for interdisciplinary initiatives in the late 1990s. “I thought we needed to coordinate plant genomics on campus,” says Michelmore, who suggested 17 new full-time faculty appointments in genomics and bioinformatics. “The med school and vet school were talking along similar lines, and it all got wrapped up into the Genome Center initiative.” 

The initiative moved forward from there, including the rapid construction of a brand-new facility that was originally designed as a single-story medical building, but grew to six. The Genome Center opened in 2004 with the mission of enabling high-throughput biology on campus. The center had tried to recruit an outside director. “We actually made one external offer a year for five years. Then Dean Phyllis Wise basically said, ‘Richard, put up or shut up.’ I made one more attempt not to be director, but that failed,” Michelmore says, wryly. “In retrospect, I feel very lucky. It was the best thing that could have happened to me.”

Richard Michelmore stands to the right of a black and blue screen on a genetic sequencing machine, looking at the screen.
Richard Michelmore, outgoing director of the UC Davis Genome Center, demonstrates the AVITI sequencer from Element Biosciences; the Genome Center acquired the sixth such machine in the world. (Sasha Bakhter / UC Davis)

A serendipitous career, from the infancy of molecular science 

Michelmore arrived at UC Davis in 1982 when he was just 26 and fresh from postdoctoral fellowships in India and at Cambridge, where he also earned his undergraduate and doctoral degrees. At the time, there was little molecular biology at Davis, but Michelmore says it was “coming fast” at Cambridge and elsewhere.I can remember seeing an X-ray film with a dark smear on it. That was some of the first evidence that Agrobacterium was inserting DNA into a plant chromosome. I remember my [Cambridge] mentor David Ingram saying, ‘If this is correct, it’s revolutionary.’ It’s going to allow engineering of plants.”

Michelmore grew up in an agricultural county in the west of England, and his family’s interests influenced his studies. “My father was a naturalist, so I had an appreciation of natural things,” he says. “While I was at Cambridge, I knew that I didn’t want to be a medic or a vet. So that left plants and agriculture. I like doing things that have a consequence.”

His career at Davis has certainly been consequential, if serendipitous. “I grew up in the philosophy of the late sixties and early seventies, so I didn't plan a career,” he says. After his postdoc in India, “I happened to see a job advertised in California. My idea was that I would get an interview, they would pay for my ticket to come out here, and I would stay and go surfing. No one told me the water’s freezing cold on the northern California coast.”

Davis proved less chilly than the Pacific, even though when Michelmore started he was younger than the average age of the students in his lab. “I had great students, very inquisitive, and I was the same,” he says. “Part of the lab’s mantra that I’ve subsequently tried to imbue the Genome Center with, being a geneticist, is ‘evolve or die.’ You’ve got to do that to stay current in science.” 

Such evolution, for Michelmore, included running the first DNA sequencing machine on campus and setting up a bioinformatics hub for his department—precursors to his later leadership of the Genome Center.

Biological science “at the bleeding edge” 

Michelmore’s vision for the Genome Center, which today employs 225 people and serves more than 700 researchers annually, required hiring top technology-driven biology faculty. Early on, he says, “the search committee sketched out a portfolio of positions that we thought we should fill, and then we thought, ‘Who’s the best in the world and potentially movable?’ And we went out and recruited several of them.”

Investing in equipment was also key. “We like to be at the bleeding edge of technology,” says Michelmore, which has included forging partnerships with startups to get the newest tech. 

“We try to get the faculty on campus to think of the center as an extension of their own lab,” says Michelmore. “We can guarantee that the equipment is the latest, it’s calibrated right, the chemicals are fresh, and the technicians are some of the best in the world. What we tell people is, if you have a good idea, we don’t want you to be technology limited.”

As well as attracting faculty and students, the center’s reputation is valuable for obtaining grant funding, for which one criterion is feasibility. “If faculty can put in their proposal that the data will be generated by the UC Davis Genome Center, the feasibility issue often goes away,” Michelmore says. 

A small machine with many plastic droppers above a tray with small reservoirs.
Key to the Genome Center’s COVID testing program were high-throughput quantitative PCR machines. Instead of sample tubes, the machines used a tape printed with thousands of tiny wells, each of which can carry out a PCR reaction. Originally developed for use in agricultural genetics, the machines ran thousands of PCR tests a day, far more than machines built specifically for medical diagnostics. (Gregory Urquiaga / UC Davis)

A “leap of faith” during the pandemic

The prestige of the Genome Center grew further during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the spring of 2020 Michelmore realized that PCR machines developed for agricultural biotechnology could be repurposed for high-throughput COVID testing. “I study plant pandemics, so it wasn’t a big transition to human pandemics,” says Michelmore. 

That insight led to more than two million free tests for UC Davis and the surrounding communities through the Healthy Davis Together initiative, and saw the city-campus partnership touted as a national model of an effective response to curbing the spread of the virus. Michelmore’s efforts were honored with the 2020-21 UC Davis Academic Senate’s Distinguished Scholarly Public Service Award.

UC Davis Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Mary Croughan, herself an epidemiologist, was seeking ways to safely bring students and employees back to the campus – a goal that would require reliable community-scale testing of asymptomatic individuals. Ken Burtis, faculty advisor to the Chancellor and Provost, was already encouraging Croughan to consider Michelmore’s proposal to use ag biotech machines through the Genome Center.

“We knew there were logistical challenges in standing up a comprehensive, community-wide testing operation,” Croughan says. “We also knew that if any university could do it, we could. We have some of the world’s most innovative, dedicated, and talented researchers and scientists at UC Davis, as well as outstanding operations teams that could overcome the logistical challenges. Then Vice-Chancellor for Finance, Operation and Administration Kelly Ratliff and I believed this was our best chance.” 

On a Tuesday evening in early August 2020, Michelmore recalls, “After getting the provost’s go ahead, I walked around the house thinking, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’” he says. “And then on Thursday I got another email saying, ‘we want to test everyone coming onto campus in six weeks’ time.’”

Getting the testing program up and running in that time required the Genome Center team to work 14 or more hours a day, seven days a week, and included plenty of troubleshooting and innovation. Personnel at the center worked “incredibly hard; it was a tremendous team effort,” Michelmore says. One key innovation was the decision to collect saliva samples rather than nasal swabs. “We knew that we weren't going to be able to do what needed to be done if we couldn’t test saliva,” he says. “So that was a leap of faith.”

“Richard’s tenure at the Genome Center not only propelled groundbreaking research but also underscored the profound impact of scientific service on our collective health,” said Mark Winey, dean of the College of Biological Sciences. “He is an exceptional member of the UC Davis community, which is evident to all who benefitted from his innovation and leadership during the COVID pandemic. In short, Richard’s work is a testament to the power of science in transforming lives and shaping a healthier, more resilient future for all.”

While the COVID testing program has wound down, the Genome Center’s labs still have posters and cards of thanks to their hardworking staff hanging on the walls—a testament to Michelmore’s leadership, the interdisciplinary collaborations that characterize genomics at Davis, and the real-world impact of scientific innovation. “One of the great things about Davis is that it has a translational mission,” says Michelmore. “People really care about the data we're generating.”

The future of the Genome Center

The next wave of such data, Michelmore says, will come in the emerging field of spatial genomics. “I see that’s where things are going to go, but I’m not necessarily the right person to lead it,” says Michelmore. “That’s why Blake Meyers was recruited. He is very much a technology-driven biologist and interested in developing spatial genomics at Davis.” Meyers, who began his tenure as the center’s director on March 1, 2024, holds a faculty position in the Department of Plant Sciences, as well as the Novozymes Chair in Genomics, and previously worked with Michelmore as both a graduate student and postdoc.

Michelmore, who plans to return to doing research and more publishing than he was able to do during his two decades as Genome Center director, says he’s looking forward to working with Meyers again. “It’s going to be fun having him back here,” says Michelmore. “We will share lab space.”

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  • Kate Washington, Ph.D., is a freelance writer based in Sacramento and the author of Already Toast: Caregiving and Burnout in America. Her work has appeared in the New York TimesTIME and Sunset, among other publications.

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