James Thomson

James Thomson

Emeritus Director of Regenerative Biology



(608) 316-4348


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Research website
NOTE: Dr. Thomson retired from the Morgridge Institute in summer 2022 and is no longer recruiting students and staff for his research lab. For current employment opportunities, see our Careers page.

What do the Etruscan shrew and the blue whale have in common? This is the question James Thomson, director of regenerative biology, has asked himself and it’s a question he intends on answering.

It takes nine months for a human to develop and three weeks for a mouse. It intuitively makes sense that big bodies take longer to grow than small bodies, but no one really knows how differences in developmental timing and growth are controlled across species. Dr. Thomson and his lab are deriving induced pluripotent stem cells from animals on the extreme ends of the body size spectrum to pinpoint the mechanisms behind cell timing. The outcomes of this research have the potential to provide a key answer to how regeneration works and will likely lead to insights on the aging process.

Dr. Thomson’s discoveries in human stem cell research at UW–Madison have redefined biomedicine, first with the isolation and culturing of human embryonic stem cells in 1998, then in the development of human pluripotent stem cells from adult skin cells in 2007. The discoveries led to two “Breakthrough of the Year” honors from the journal Science; cover-story coverage in Time magazine, which named him one of the “World’s 100 Most Influential People” in 2008; and receipt in 2011 of the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, known as “America’s Nobel.”

So, what do the Etruscan shrew and the blue whale have in common? Dr. Thomson is thinking about it.


Ph.D. Molecular Biology, 1988, University of Pennsylvania

V.M.D. Veterinary Medicine, 1985, University of Pennsylvania

B.S. Biophysics (Summa cum laude), 1981, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


  • 1999 : The isolation of human ES cells was cited by the journal Science in its “Scientific Breakthrough of the Year” 
  • 1999 : American Academy of Achievement Golden Plate Award 
  • 2001: Wilson S. Stone Memorial Award for Biomedical Research 
  • 2001: Hall of Fame Award for Scientific Achievement, Annual Conference of Biotechnology CEOs 
  • 2002: Lois Pope Award Annual LIFE International Research Award 
  • 2002: Elected to the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters 
  • 2002 : World Technology Award, Health and Medicine
  • 2003 : American College of Veterinary Pathologists, Outstanding Achievement Award 
  • 2003: Frank Annunzio Award (Science/Technology) sponsored by the Christopher Columbus Foundation
  • 2005 : Distinguished Service Award for Enhancing Education through Biological Research. The National Association of Biology Teachers, Inc. 
  • 2005: Named in “Milestones of Science” poster. Science 
  • 2006 : Nathan R. Brewer Scientific Achievement Award, American Association for Laboratory Animal Science 
  • 2007: Brian D. Howell Excellence in Innovation Award, 2007: Best of Madison Business Awards, Madison, WI 
  • 2008 Elected to the National Academy of Sciences; Recipient of the Meira and Shaul G. Massry Prize
  • 2011: Co-Winner, King Faisal International Prize
  • 2011 : Co-Winner, Albany Medical Prize
  • 2013: McEwen Award for Innovation, The International Society of Stem Cell Research (ISSCR)

Selected Publications

  • Thomson JA, Kalishman J, Golos TG, Durning M, Harris CP, Becker RA, Hearn JP. Isolation of a primate embryonic stem cell line. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 92(17):7844-8, 1995. PMC41242.
  • Thomson, JA, Itskovitz-Eldor J, Shapiro SS, Waknitz MA, Swiergiel JJ, Marshall VS, Jones JM. Embryonic stem cell lines derived from human blastocysts. Science 282(5391):1145-7, 1998.
  • Xu R, Chen X, Li DS, Li R, Addicks GC, Glennon C, Zwaka TP, Thomson JA. BMP4 initiates human embryonic stem cell differentiation to trophoblast. Nat Biotechnol 20(12):1261-4, 2002.
  • Zwaka TP, Thomson JA. Homologous recombination in human embryonic stem cells. Nat Biotechnol 21(3):319-21, 2003.
  • Zwaka TP, Thomson JA. Differentiation of human embryonic stem cells occurs through symmetric cell division. Stem Cells 23(2):146-9, 2005.
  • Yu J, Vodyanik MA, He P, Slukvin II, Thomson JA. Human embryonic stem cells reprogram myeloid precursors following cell-cell fusion. Stem Cells 24(1):168-76, 2006.
  • Ludwig TE, Levenstein ME, Jones J, Berggren W, Mitchen E, Frane J, Crandall L, Daigh CA, Conard K, Piekarczyk M, Llanas R, Thomson JA. Derivation of human embryonic stem cells in defined conditions. Nat Biotechnol 24(2):185-7, 2006.
  • Yu J, Vodyanik M, Smuga-Otto K, Frane J, Antosiewicz-Bourget J, Frane J, Tian S, Nie J, Jonsdottir GA, Ruotti V, Stewart R, Slukvin II, Thomson JA. Induced pluripotent stem cell lines derived from human somatic cells. Science 318:1917-20, 2007.
  • Yu, J. and Thomson, JA. Pluripotent stem cell lines. Genes Dev 22(15):1987-97, 2008. PMC2735345.
  • Ebert AD, Yu J, Rose FF, Mattis VB, Lorson CL, Thomson JA, Svendsen CN. Induced pluripotent stem cells from a spinal muscular atrophy patient. Nature 457(7227):277-80, 2009. PMC2659408.
  • Zhang J, Wilson GF, Soerens AG, Koonce CH, Yu J, Thomson JA, Kamp TJ. Functional cardiomyocytes derived from human induced pluripotent stem cells. Circ Res 104(4):e30-41, 2009. PMC2741334.
  • Choi K-D, Yu J, Smuga-Otto K, Salvagiotto G, Rehrauer W, Vodyanik M, Thomson JA, Slukvin I. Hematopoietic and endothelial differentiation of human induced pluripotent stem cells. Stem Cells 27(3):559-67, 2009. PMC2931800.
  • Heintzman ND, Hon GC, Hawkins RD, Kheradpour P, Stark A, Stuart RK, Harp LF, Ye Z, Ching KA, Ching CW, Antosiewicz-Bourget JA, Liu J, Zhang X, Green RD, Stewart R, Thomson JA, Crawford GE, Kellis M, Ren B. Histone modifications at human enhancers reflect global cell-type-specific gene expression. Nature 459:108-12, 2009. PMC2910248.
  • Yu J, Hu K, Smuga-Otto K, Tian S, Stewart R, Slukin II, Thomson JA. Human induced pluripotent stem cells free of vector and transgene sequences. Science 324:797-801, 2009. PMC2758053.
  • Lister R, Pelizzola M, Dowen R, Hawkins RD, Hon G, Tonti-Filippini J, Nery J, Lee L, Ye Z, Ngo Q, Edsall L, Antosiewicz-Bourget J, Stewart R, Ruotti V, Millar AH, Thomson JA, Ren B, Ecker J. Human DNA methylomes at base resolution show widespread epigenomic differences. Nature 462, 315-22, 2009. PMC2857523.
  • Lister R, Pelizzola M, Kida YS, Hawkins RD, Nery JR, Hon G, Antosiewicz-Bourget J, O’Malley R, Castanon R, Downes M, Yu R, Stewart R, Ren B, Thomson JA, Evans RM,Ecker JR. “Hotspots of aberrant epigenomic reprogramming in human iPS cells.” Nature, (2011): 471(7336): 68-73.
  • Meyer JS, Howden SE, Wallace KA, Verhoeven AD, Wright LS, Capowski EE, Pinilla I, Martin JM, Stewart R, Pattnaik B, Thomson JA, Gamm DM. “Optic Vesicle Structures Derived from Human Pluripotent Stem Cells Facilitate A Customized Approach to Retinal Disease Treatment.” Stem Cells (2011): 29(8): 1206-18.
  • Howden SE, Gore A, Li Zhe, Fung H, Nisler BS, Nie J, Chen G, McIntosh BE, Gulbranson DR, Diol NR, Taapken SM, Vereide DT, Montgomery KD, Zhang K, Gamm D, Thomson JA. “Genetic correction and analysis of induced pluripotent stem cells from a patient with gyrate atrophy.” Proc Natl Acad Sci USA (2011): 108(16): 6537-42. PMCID: PMC3080993.
  • Hou Z, Zhang Y, Propson NE, Howden SE, Chu L, Sontheimer EJ, Thomson, JA. “Efficient Genome Engineering in Human Pluripotent Stem Cells Using Cas9 from Neisseria meningitides.” Proc Natl Acad Sci, USA, 110 (39): 15644-9 (2013). PMCID: PMC3785731.
  • Jiang P, Hou Z, Propson NE, Soh HT, Thomson JA, Stewart, R. “MPBind: A Meta-Motif Based Statistical Framework and Pipeline to Predict Binding Potential of SELEX-derived Aptamers.” Bioinformatics, in press (2014).