Cornell plant breeding pioneer wins Japan Prize

Steven Tanksley

Steven D. Tanksley, a molecular geneticist who pioneered concepts essential to modern plant breeding while a professor at Cornell University, has won the prestigious Japan Prize. The award recognizes his development of molecular genetic analysis and contribution to the stable production of food crops.

Tanksley, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor Emeritus in the School of Integrative Plant Science (SIPS), revolutionized plant breeding by creating the first chromosomal maps of plants and pioneering genetic techniques essential to crop development. In research on tomato and rice plants, his team isolated and cloned specific genes using detailed chromosomal maps. The research paved the way for improvements in size, nutritional value and disease resistance of major food crops.

His research helped lay the foundation for the breakthrough technology known as marker-assisted selection (MAS). MAS has transformed plant breeding from a largely trial-and-error endeavor into a predictive science able to pinpoint desirable traits related to agricultural productivity, allowing scientists to explore the genome in a way never before possible.

The Japan Prize honors scientists “whose original and outstanding achievements are not only scientifically impressive, but have also served to promote peace and prosperity for all mankind.” Tanksley, one of two honorees worldwide this year, will receive a certificate of recognition and commemorative gold medal from the emperor and empress of Japan April 20 in Tokyo. Tanksley won the prize in Biological Production and Biological Environment. The prize includes a cash award of 50 million yen (approximately $420,000) given to each laureate.

Tanksley began his career in the late 1970s before the advent of molecular biology. As a graduate student at the University of California, Davis, he worked on rudimentary genetic maps of plants using protein genetics.

“I had the realization that once the field was fully developed, especially with the advent of DNA cloning, it would be possible to make complete genetic blueprints and use them for applications that really were never conceived before,” he said.

Traditional plant breeding techniques used at the time were plodding endeavors prone to error. A corn breeder might grow corn lines and measure performance over time to identify varieties with the highest genetic potential. The process took years and easily could be confounded by environmental effects.

In 1985 Tanksley joined the faculty of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences as associate professor of plant breeding. Over the next decade he developed tools that allowed for complete mapping of the tomato genome, a crucial landmark giving Tanksley and his collaborators the ability to make predications based on DNA profiles of plants.

“Before that time we could only infer indirectly a plant’s genetic potential. Now, instead of spending money and time on inferior lines, you can focus resources on the small number you know have genetic superiority,” he said.

Virtually all crops have now been genetically mapped using his techniques, as have many livestock breeds.

SIPS director Alan Collmer, the Andrew J. and Grace B. Nichols Professor of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology, said marker-assisted selection enables efficient and predictive breeding by using molecular markers associated with a trait, such as fruit shape, rather than the trait itself to guide the process.

“It totally revolutionized plant breeding,” Collmer said. The technique gives breeders improved accuracy and makes it more efficient to breed new crop varieties.

“Steve worked at the interface of basic and applied science. He was a pioneer in translational biology before it was just a buzzword,” said William Crepet, professor of plant biology and department chair in the Plant Biology Section of SIPS. “His brilliance came in mastering basic science and quite elegantly directing it to its most important application.”

In 1997 Tanksley spearheaded the Cornell Genomics Initiative (CGI), which coordinated about 50 faculty members from more than 20 departments across the university to take advantage of the university’s strengths.

“His leadership played a major role in hiring faculty into genomic areas across the entire life science enterprise at Cornell. It transformed us into a genomics powerhouse,” said Collmer.

In 2002, following the success of the CGI, Cornell launched the $500 million New Life Sciences Initiative. The effort integrated life sciences departments with physical, engineering and computational sciences to form a cross-disciplinary project focused on research.

“The richness of the environment at Cornell, from my own department and the quality of students, postdocs and faculty to collaborate with throughout the university made what I did in my work feasible. I don’t think it could have happened anyplace else,” Tanksley said.

In 2010, Tanksley retired from Cornell to focus his efforts on Nature Source Genetics, a company he founded four years prior. The Ithaca-based company specializes in using genomic data to optimize plant and animal breeding.

He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1995 and the Royal Society of London in 2009 and appointed the Einstein Professor of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2006. He has won the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Award, the Martin Gibbs Medal of the American Society of Plant Physiology, Israel’s Wolf Foundation Prize in Agriculture, the Rank Prize and the Kumho Award in Plant Molecular Biology and Technology.

Matt Hayes is managing editor and social media manager for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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