Williams LAB @ UC Berkeley

Dept. of Plant & Microbial Biology.

Answering fundamental questions in

plant genetics & epigenetics

1. What is epigenetics & how does it work?

Epigenetics is the study of heritable information that is not contained within the DNA sequence of the genome. One example of this is DNA methylation - a reversible chemical modification to DNA that can be added or removed by specialized enzymes. DNA methylation can profoundly affect how a DNA sequence functions. Two genes with identical sequences can produce very different traits, depending on whether or not methylation is added to the DNA. Below is an example of a gene that changes the leaf surface when its DNA methylation is removed:














In the Williams lab, we are interested in understanding how this epigenetic information is regulated and maintained by cells:

  • How do the enzymes that add and remove DNA methylation find which sequences to act upon with precision?

  • How do DNA methylation patterns get accurately inherited over many generations?

  • How do these mechanisms function during the development of tissues and organs?

2. How do cells recognize different DNA sequences?

Each eukaryotic genome contains an enormously complex array of genetic information. DNA sequences can exhibit a huge diversity of functions and regulations. For example, genes encoding proteins can be highly expressed in all cells, or turned on precisely at particular times or in cell types. Repetitive DNA is often transcriptionally silent, as expressing repetitive sequences can cause problems for the cell. We are interested in understanding how the myriad sequences of the genome are perceived:

  • How is repetitive DNA recognized?

  • How are important genes protected from silencing?

  • How do different DNA sequences regulate their epigenetic state?

3. How does epigenetics influence cell identity and regeneration?

Every cell within an organism contains the same genome sequence, yet cells can differentiate into diverse and specialized cell types. The cells of many plant species show an extraordinary ability to be flexible, reversing or changing their specialized cell identity in response to certain conditions. In the Williams lab, we are fascinated by how this happens at the level of perceiving and processing genetic and epigenetic information. 

The information to make different cell types is accessible to every cell - so what determines the conditions under which cells can change their state? How are some plant species able to do this much better than others?

Answering these questions could have a large impact on the world, by changing how we can get different plant species to regenerate. Regenerating whole plants from a few cells is a critical part of the process of plant engineering. The inability to regenerate many types of plants is a significant hurdle to our ability to use gene editing technologies (such as CRISPR/Cas9) to improve these plants to meet future challenges. Mitigating the effects of global climate change on agriculture and environments across the world will likely require the creative and nimble use of gene editing, which will require an understanding of how to regenerate gene edited plants. In the Williams lab, we are motivated to help unlock the secrets of plant regeneration to expand our ability to improve important plants to meet global challenges.


Left: shoots of a passion flower plant regenerating in tissue culture. Right: branches regenerating from the trunk of a felled ash tree

Source: Wikimedia commons




Ben Williams - PI

B.A. Biology, Oxford University
Ph.D. Plant Sciences, Cambridge University

Interests: Genetics, Genomics, Synthetic Biology, Innovation

Hobbies: Music, Hiking


Kevin Tran - Lab Manager

B.A. Biology, Carleton College

Interests: Genetics, Development, Microbiology, Queer/Gender Studies, Equality in Education

Hobbies: Theater, Thrift shopping

Clara Williams_profile_cropped.jpg

Clara Williams - Post-Doc


B.Sc. Plant Biology, UC Davis

Ph.D. Biochemistry & Biotechnology, VIB - University of Ghent, Belgium.

Interests: Molecular biology, Evolution, Epigenetics, Promoting STEM

Hobbies: Yoga, Rock Climbing,


Connor Tumelty - Undergrad


Intended B.S. Genetics and Plant Biology & B.A. Classical Civilizations, UC Berkeley

Interests: Consuming media, Political advocacy

Hobbies: Reading, Video games


Isabelle Do - Undergrad


Intended B.S. Molecular Environmental Biology & B.S. Business Administration, UC Berkeley

Interests: Plants, cosmetics, gene editing

Hobbies: Video games, drinking boba


Cindy Li - Undergrad


Intended B.S. Microbial Biology & B.S. Nutritional Sciences: Toxicology

Interests: Biotechnology, Genetic Engineering, Nutrition, Zoology, Philosophy, Folklore

Hobbies: Taekwondo, Comics/Manga, Boxing

PhD Positions available!
Post-Doc positions available!

Looking to join the team?

email benwilliams@berkeley.edu for more info!



Sep 2021 - Isabelle and Cindy join the lab. Welcome!

March 2021 - A new pre-print from the lab on the role of DNA demethylases in plants: https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.03.29.437569v1

March 2021 - Post-Doc Clara Williams joins the lab after finishing her Ph.D. at the University of Ghent, Belgium and helping beat covid-19 at the diagnostics lab in Berkeley. Welcome Clara!

Feb 2020 - Plant biology undergrad Connor Tumelty joins the lab. Welcome, Connor!

Nov 2020 - Kevin Tran joins the team after graduating from Carleton College! Welcome, Kevin!

The Williams lab is open! We opened in the Innovative Genomics Institute building at UC Berkeley in the summer of 2020.

We are excited to be recruiting new team members! Post-Doc candidates with an interest in epigenetics, genomics and biochemistry are especially encouraged to apply. Experience working with plants is welcome but not strictly necessary. Email benwilliams@berkeley.edu for information about positions.


For the most up-to-date list of publications, check Ben Williams' Google Scholar page


Williams, BP, Bechen, LL, Pohlmann, DA, Gehring, M. Somatic DNA demethylation generates tissue-specific methylation states and impacts flowering time. bioXriv pre-print available: https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.03.29.437569

Picard, CL, Povilus, RA, Williams, BP, Gehring, M. (2021). Transcriptional and imprinting complexity in Arabidopsis seeds at single-nucleus resolution. Nat. Plants  7: 730–738.