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Cornell's Tanksley wins prestigious 1998 Humboldt Award for his 'significant contribution' to agriculture

Steven D. Tanksley, Cornell University's Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor of Plant Breeding, has been named the 1998 recipient of the prestigious $15,000 Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Award for making the "most significant contribution to American agriculture over the previous five years."

The award ceremony will be Oct. 28 at 12:20 p.m. in Room G-10 of the Cornell Biotechnology Building. During the award ceremony, Tanksley will present a seminar, "Maps, Markers and Mysteries in Plant Breeding."

In addition to Tanksley's prize, the Humboldt Foundation has awarded Cornell a $5,000 Alfred Toepfer scholarship, which is being given to Sarah Graznak, a Cornell senior plant breeding major, who will use the money to study agriculture in Germany.

"We are very proud of Steve in receiving the 1998 Humboldt Award. Steve brings great honor, not only to himself but to the agriculture college and Cornell," says Daryl B. Lund, dean of the New York State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell.

"A lot of very deserving people were nominated for this award, and being selected is a great honor; it is very humbling," said Tanksley, who was nominated by Elizabeth Earle, chair of plant breeding.

Tanksley developed the first molecular maps of rice and tomatoes. He used these genetic guides for the identification of trait locations on genes, and he was the first plant geneticist to use map-based cloning of a pest-resistance gene in a crop plant. He also developed computer programs and databases for the management and analysis of molecular genetic data. Gurdev S. Khush, principal plant breeder at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines described him as the "father of molecular marker-assisted crop breeding."

Earle calls Tanksley "an inspiring and effective research mentor and colleague." While his work has greatly increased the understanding of genetics and molecular biology of crop plants, she says, his creativity and innovation have allowed him to develop tools that solve great agricultural problems.

One of Tanksley's goals has been to combat hunger. Armed with genome maps, he and Susan R. McCouch, Cornell assistant professor of plant breeding, found genes in wild rice species in 1996 that could boost production of one of the world's primary agricultural crops.

"We've gone back and found wild species that contain genes that may help us boost production," Tanksley said at the time. "The world is only so big, the population is growing and we need to continue feeding that population."

Until that discovery, there had not been a significant yield increase in rice in two decades. With so much rice inbreeding, the crop had reached a genetic bottleneck and yields were static. Using genes from the wild rice, researchers hope to increase yields by re-introducing the crop's natural diversity.

Tanksley received a bachelor's degree in agronomy from Colorado State University in 1976 and a doctorate in genetics from the University of California at Davis in 1979. He joined the Cornell faculty in 1985 as an associate professor of plant breeding, was named a professor in 1994 and a Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor in the same year. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1995.

The U.S.-based Alexander von Humboldt Foundation is named for a 19th century German geographer and natural scientist. It was founded in 1959 by Alfred Toepfer, who was a German grain merchant and philanthropist. Karl-Hugo Schlunk, president of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, will be unable to attend the ceremony. Lore Toepfer, vice president and trustee of the foundation, will make the presentation of the award and the scholarship. Heinrich and Birte Toepfer, of Germany, also will be present for the award and scholarship.

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