Ray Wu, Cornell's acclaimed pioneer of genetic engineering and developer of widely grown, hardy rice, dies at 79
By Blaine Friedlander
Ray J. Wu, Cornell professor of molecular biology and genetics, who was widely recognized as one of the fathers of plant genetic engineering, from which sprang the development of widely grown rice plants resistant to pests, drought and salt, died at Cayuga Medical Center in Ithaca Feb. 10. He was 79.
The cause of death was cardiac arrest.
In 1970 Wu developed the first method for sequencing DNA and some of the fundamental tools for DNA cloning (sequencing involves determining the base sequence in a DNA molecule). After several innovative modifications by other scientists to greatly speed up the process, the same strategy is still being used today, and led to the DNA sequence determination of the entire genomes of rice and human, among other organisms -- helping scientists to understand different genetic traits.
Born in China and educated in the United States, Wu was a scientific adviser to the governments of both China and Taiwan. As such he exerted great influence on U.S.-Chinese cooperation in biological science and education.
At Cornell, in 1999 he committed to a gift of $500,000 to establish the Ray Wu Graduate Fellowship in Molecular Biology and Genetics to support a first-year graduate student. He funded the gift over the next five years to create a permanent endowment to support one graduate student each year in the field of molecular biology and genetics.
Following his pioneering work in the 1980s on the development of efficient transformation systems for rice, Wu and his group genetically engineered rice plants resistant to pests, drought and salt. A gene from the potato, called proteinase inhibitor II (or PIN-II), caused the rice plants to produce a protein that interferes with the digestive process of the pink stem borer, causing the insect to eat less, thus reducing plant damage. In a second study, a barley gene enabled rice plants to produce a protein that makes them salt- and drought-resistant so that they grow in saline conditions and recover quickly from dry conditions.
A third study increased drought, salt and temperature stress tolerance by introducing the bacterial gene for trehalose (sugar) synthesis into widely planted rice varieties. Wu and his colleagues said the strategy could enhance stress tolerance for other crops, including corn, wheat, millet, soybeans and sugar cane.
Wu joined the Cornell faculty in 1966, as an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, became a professor in 1972, and in 2004 was named a Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor Molecular Biology and Genetics. He served as department chair (1976-1978) in Cornell's Section of Biochemistry, Molecular and Cell Biology. Prior to joining the Cornell faculty, he was a Damon Runyon Postdoctoral Fellow, working under Efraim Racker, at the Public Health Research Institute of the City of New York. He has also worked at Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania. He was a National Science Foundation Senior Fellow at the Medical Research Council Laboratory in Cambridge, England, and a visiting associate professor in the Department of Biology and Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
While on sabbatical leave from Cornell in 1989, Wu was director of the Institute of Molecular Biology of Academia Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan. He also served as an honorary professor and later as an adjunct professor at Peking University.
Wu founded the China-United States Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Examination and Application program, which from 1982 to 1989, brought over 400 of the top Chinese students to the U.S. for graduate training, and produced more than 100 faculty members in major universities or key members in industry. These scientists, with colleagues from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, formed the Ray Wu Society to promote life sciences frontiers.
Among other advisory roles to both the Chinese and Taiwanese governments, Wu was instrumental in establishing the Institute of Molecular Biology, the Institute of Bioagricultural Sciences of Academia Sinica in Taiwan, and the National Institute of Biological Sciences in Beijing, and he held several honorary professorships at Chinese universities and research institutes.
Wu was elected a fellow of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science in 2003; and elected a fellow in the Chinese Academy of Engineering. He was given the prestigious Frank Annunzio Award in Science and Technology in 2002, which is presented by the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation.
Between 1982 and 1995 he served as scientific adviser to the China National Center for Biotechnology Development; chairman, Scientific Advisory Committee of the Institute of BioAgricultural Sciences, Taiwan; chairman, Advisory Committee to the Transgenic Plant Program, National Science Council, Taiwan, and chairman, Board of Scientific Advisers of the International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology.
Born in Beijing on Aug. 14, 1928, Wu came to the United States in 1948 at the urging of his father who at the time was attending professional meetings in San Francisco. He earned his bachelor's degree in chemistry from the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, in 1950; and then earned his doctoral degree in biochemistry from the University of Pennsylvania in 1955. Wu became a naturalized United States citizen in February 1961.
He is survived by his wife, Christina, and two children, Albert Wu '80, M.D. '84, and Alice Wu '82, M.S. '86, and three grandchildren.
This week, tributes to Ray Wu came from his many colleagues and collaborators across the Cornell campus. Volker M. Vogt, professor of molecular biology and genetics, said: "He was well known and appreciated by legions of admirers and friends, both at Cornell and abroad. Ray was a pioneer in recombinant DNA technology and in genetic engineering of plants.
"For many years and continuing to the present, Ray and his collaborators worked successfully to develop genetically modified strains of rice that are tolerant to drought- and salt-stress, in order to help feed the large fraction of humanity that depends on rice as a staple food. His commitment to this goal was unwavering. Ray also served as a scientific adviser to the governments of both mainland China and Taiwan, and he exerted great influence on U.S.-Chinese cooperation in biological science and education. He became a revered figure in universities and research institutes of those countries. In the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, Ray's thoughtful advice and even-tempered judgment were hallmarks by which he will long be remembered. His 'can do' attitude toward solving both scientific and human relationship problems, always with respect for others and without anger or prejudice, set the highest standard for all of his colleagues.
"In generosity of spirit Ray was unmatched. His personal donations to help support or honor Chinese or Chinese-American graduate students in the department and at Cornell were a manifestation of this generosity. In unselfishly giving so much of himself in all of his endeavors, Ray truly left a mark. His colleagues and friends in the department, at Cornell, and all over the world will miss him greatly."
Elizabeth Earle, professor of plant breeding and genetics, said: "I will always remember Ray's personal kindness, including sending me photographs he had taken of me and my family at a recent event. He attended many plant breeding seminars, sitting in the first row and taking careful notes. It was impressive to see such a distinguished senior scientist interested in the work of graduate students and always looking forward."
Susan McCouch, professor of plant breeding and genetics, said: "Ray Wu was a gentleman and a scholar. He will be fondly remembered by his many friends, colleagues and students for his devotion to rice research, his enthusiasm for new knowledge and his mentoring of a generation of young scientists. He made enormous contributions to the development of rice transformation systems that are widely used to address crop production constraints throughout the rice-growing world. I am particularly grateful to him for support and guidance during my graduate studies at Cornell and for his friendship and collegiality throughout my own career. I will miss seeing him sitting in the front row of our weekly seminars but am comforted by the memory of his thin, erect frame walking unaided up until the last days of his life, his alert eyes and kind smile."
Wu's longtime collaborator Ajay Garg, a senior research associate, said: "His untiring help, generosity and legacy will remain with us forever. We had a vision and a commitment to see that the research results are of benefit globally. I'm very grateful to him for providing me an excellent opportunity to work at Cornell, and contribute to transgenic rice research."