Baylor University
Department of Biology
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Baylor > Biology > Faculty Directory > Christopher Michel Kearney
Christopher Michel Kearney

Chris Kearney 2012 photo

Associate Professor of Biology

C.311 Baylor Sciences Building
(254) 710-2131

Associate Professor of Biology

Ph.D. Plant Pathology, Cornell University
M.S. Biological Sciences, Cal Poly Pomona
B.S. Biological Sciences, University of California, Irvine

Research Focus: Medical Applications of Plant Biotechnology

Plant platforms offer special opportunities to bring inexpensive, large scale medical biotechnology solutions to the Third World. We hope that by being innovative we can establish new platforms for the development of appropriate technologies for areas prone to poverty. We are currently focusing on the following three areas, but are always open to new ideas and collaborations.

1) Plant produced nanoparticle vaccines.

In collaboration with Alison McCormick of Touro University, California, we have produced 300 nm nanoparticles in plants in a project funded by the Gates Foundation.  These nanoparticles comprise an  inner RNA core, which can replicate in human or plant cells, and a highly protective outer protein coat.  They are avidly taken up by dendritic cells, the main antigen presenting cell of the human immune system.  The RNA used is modified from Flock House virus, an insect virus, and the coat consists of Tobacco mosaic virus coat protein.  The genes encoding these are delivered by agroinoculation to the chromosomes of intact plants, and the leaves are then harvested for nanoparticle purification a week later.  Our newly patented plant viral vector, FECT, is also used in this process.  The next steps in this process will be to direct cellular localization of the components to improve encapsidation and to direct the cellular destination of the nanoparticles in mammalian cells. Tuberculosis antigen vaccine genes will be inserted into the best of these final nanoparticle vectors.

Manuscript in preparation:
Zhou Y.Y., McCormick A., Kearney C.M.  In planta production of immunogenic nanoparticles of Tobacco mosaic virus encapsidated Flock House virus RNA.

2) Mosquitocidal nectar plants

Male mosquitos feed exclusively on nectar while female mosquitoes need nectar to fuel their flights to find a blood meal. The control of local mosquito populations using oral pesticide-laden sugar baits has been worked out by Muller and associates (e.g., J.Med.Entomol.47:63, 2010). If an oral peptide toxin were delivered in persistent transgenic garden plants or vines, this would obviate the need for reapplication of toxin and would avoid environmentally and medically dangerous pesticides. We have identified readily transformed plants which are highly attractive to mosquitoes. We are presently evaluating the oral toxicity and synergy of proteins specifically toxic to adult mosquitoes and not to bees, butterflies or other pollinators. Finally, we are in the process of expressing toxic peptides specifically in the nectar of mosquito attractive plants. Our collaborators include Bob Thornburg (Iowa State Univ.), Woody Foster (Ohio State Univ.) and Yinghui Dan (Virginia Polytechnic Univ.).

Manuscript in preparation:
Chen Z.Y., Kearney C.M.   Attraction of mosquitoes to nectar of transformation-competent plants:  Potential for the development of mosquitocidal plants.

3) Production of antimicrobial peptides in plants

Due to the lack of new antibiotics in the development pipeline, we may be approaching the "post-antibiotic era".   New antimicrobial materials are being sought to replace or supplement antibiotics.  The innate immune system of humans and many other organisms, including plants, produce peptides which are the frontline defenses against bacterial and fungal infections.  Knottin-like proteins are a structural class of disulfide bond forming peptides which have antimicrobial and insecticidal properties.  Mishu Islam, a graduate student in my lab, in collaboration with Erich Baker (Computer Science, Baylor University), has developed an algorithm for the discovery of knottin-like proteins in genome databases.  We have produced biologically active fusion partner versions of a knottin protein plants and are now expanding this approach to other peptides. 

Manuscript in preparation:
Islam A., Baker E., Kearney C.M.  A machine learning algorithm for genome screening knottin-like protein sequences.

Courses Currently Taught
Molecular Genetics (BIO 4306)
Biotechnology (BIO 4303)
Virology (BIO 5302)
Cell Medicine and Biotechnology (BMS 5308)

Administrative Duties
Graduate Program Director, Biomedical Studies
Chair, University Institutional Biosafety Committee


“Highly efficient suppressor-dependent protein expression in plants with a viral vector.”  Patent number US 8,344,208.  Jan. 1, 2013.  C. Kearney and Z. Liu, Baylor University

Recent Publications:

1. Liu Z., Kearney C.M. 2010. An efficient Foxtail mosaic virus vector system with reduced environmental risk. BMC Biotechnology 2010, 10:88 (multipage e-publication)

2. Liu, Z., Kearney C.M. 2010. A tobamovirus expression vector for agroinfection of legumes and Nicotiana. Journal of Biotechnology 147:151-159.

3. Liu Z., Bhattacharyyaa S., Ning B., Midoro-Horiuti T., Czerwinski E.W., Goldblum R.M., Mort A., Kearney C.M. 2010. Plant-expressed recombinant mountain cedar allegen Jun a 1 is allergenic and has limited pectate lyase activity. International Archives of Allergy and Immunology 153:347-358.

4. Moehnke M.H., Midoro-Horiuti, T., Goldblum, R.M., and Kearney, C.M. 2008. The expression of a mountain cedar allergen comparing plant-viral apoplastic and yeast expression systems. Biotechnology Letters 30 (7):1259-64.

5. Wehbe-Janek H, Shi Q, Kearney CM. 2007. Cordycepin/hydroxyurea synergy allows low dosage efficacy of cordycepin in MOLT-4 leukemia cells. Anticancer Research 27 (5A):3143-6.

6. Varshney, S., Goldblum, R.M., Auton, M., Kearney, C., Watanabe, M., Midoro-Horiuti, T. 2007. Major mountain cedar allergen, Jun a 1 contains conformational as well as linear IgE epitopes. Molecular Immunology 44 (10):2781-2785

7. Wehbe, H., Kearney, C.M., and Pinney, K.G. 2005. Combretastatin A-4 resistance in H460 human lung carcinoma demonstrates distinctive alterations in beta-tubulin isotype expression. Anticancer Research 25:3865-3870.

Department of Biology