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KNOXVILLE — A research article by Joe Williams, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has been named one of the Top 100 Science Stories of 2008 by Discover magazine.

Williams’ article, which helped explain the amazing diversity in flowering plants, was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in July.

Joe Williams
Joe Williams
The findings in Williams’ article were significant in that the tremendous diversity of flowering plants — known as angiosperms — has puzzled scientists from the time of Charles Darwin, 150 years ago. Williams showed that the ability of angiosperms to quickly and efficiently move sperm from pollen grain to egg cell was a key step in the evolutionary diversification of flowers.

“The story is kind of complicated, so I’m glad they recognized it,” said Williams.

Bruce Bursten, dean of UT Knoxville’s College of Arts and Sciences, said the recognition is meaningful not just for Williams but for the college and the university as a whole.

“We in the college are extremely proud of this major recognition of the scholarly activities of Professor Williams,” said Bursten. “He epitomizes the quest for excellence we have in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the College of Arts and Sciences. In this commitment to cutting-edge research that advances science, we strive to increase the national prominence of our university and the state of Tennessee.”

Since the article was published, Williams has presented his findings at a number of conferences and heard from colleagues across the spectrum of biology, many of whom would not normally pay attention to articles examining questions of evolution.

“Talking with people who don’t normally look at evolution, they’re eating it up,” said Williams. “It’s not that I did anything new, though I looked at some previously unexamined species. I just put together a lot of existing information in a way that made sense.”

Williams says he will continue to pursue the question of how ancient flowering plants evolved a completely new reproductive biology, including studies that will seek the specific genes that govern how pollen gets sperm to the egg.

Williams’ work was funded by UT Knoxville and the National Science Foundation.


Jay Mayfield (865-974-9409,

Joe Williams (865-974-6202,