February 2, 2005

Prof. Wins Kumho Award

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The 2005 Kumho Science International Award in Plant Molecular Biology and Biotechnology will be awarded to Steven Tanksley, the Liberty Hyde Bailey professor of Plant Breeding and Genetics, for meritorious research in plant molecular biology and biotechnology.

The award, which has been presented annually since 2000 by the International Society for Plant Molecular Biology, consists of $30,000 for personal use of the recipient and brings with it a great amount of prestige to both Tanksley and Cornell University.

“This is an international award that has high international visibility, and any time a faculty member receives an award of this stature, it is not only a reflection on the individual but also on the institution,” said Kraig Alder, vice provost of the life sciences.

Many of Tanksley’s contributions have been in the areas of plant genome mapping and comparative genomics. Genome mapping is an effort to connect specific gene sequences with the proteins that they code for, which ultimately allows plant scientists to associate a gene with a phenotypic characteristic such as plant color, drought tolerance, or pest resistance. Comparative genomics is the analysis of genomes, arrived at by gene mapping, from various species; it is usually conducted to gain a better understanding of how species have evolved.

“[Tanksley] was one of the first persons that was involved in Comparitive Genomics,” said Prof. Stephen Kresovich, plant breeding and genetics, and a colleague of Tanksley’s.

Tanksley recognized “that there was a value in understanding how plants evolved and how they were bred, and that there were a lot of useful traits in wild relatives that were not being exploited by conventional plant breeding,” Kresovich added.

In fact, much of Tanksley’s early research involved “the use of wild species in the genetic improvement of inbred crops,” said Prof. Susan McCouch, a previous graduate student and close collaborator of Tanksley’s.

“Most domestic crops are inbred by nature, which tends to narrow the gene pool,” McCouch said, but the examination of wild, yet closely related species, has allowed scientists to identify genes that improve inbred species.

Sometimes these genes do not fully express themselves in the genome of the wild species, “but when you move them into a cultivar, they can interact with other genes to create a better behavior,” McCouch added.

During this early research, McCouch studied close relatives of rice in an effort to identify genes that might increase the drought tolerance of rice. Tanksley conducted similar investigations for the tomato. Both of their research has inspired similar work in other plants such as wheat, pepper, rice and beans.

Tanksley also organized worldwide research on genome mapping of tomatoes and other closely related plants that together comprise the Solanaceae Family. In 2002, he worked closely with Prof. James Giovannoni, plant biology, and other Cornell faculty in sequencing gene segments that are expressed in different aspects of the tomato plant. The research group collected groups of RNA, transcribed portions of DNA, and then converted them to DNA. The converted samples, called complimentary DNA, were then cloned and sequenced. “The sequences are called the expressed sequence tags,” Giovannoni said.

They are “a way of capturing a lot of information about the genes from an organism … you get some indication of what genes are expressed in the tissue,” Giovannoni added. These expressed genes comprise only a small part of the entire genome, however.

In many cases, a large number of genes are only expressed during certain stages in a plant’s life cycle while others only in certain plant varieties or never at all.

Accordingly, Tanksley, Giovannoni, and Prof. Lukas Mueller, plant breeding and genetics, initiated an international effort to sequence the tomato genome over the next two years. The motivation for this effort and other research in plant genomics has been primarily attributed to Tanksley.

“It is thanks to Tanksley’s leadership that the large international effort to sequence the tomato genome is underway,” said Giovannoni.

“[Tanksley] is one of the reasons that the genomics initiatives are so successful,” Kresovich added.

Tanksley will receive the award this summer at the Kumho Art Gallery in Seoul, South Korea. He has received several awards over the past years, including the Wolf Foundation Prize in Agriculture in 2004 and the Humboldt Foundation Award in 1998.

Archived article by David Andrade
Sun Staff Writer