Liberty Hyde Bailey lecture honors Steve Tanksley at Reunion

Professors Susan McCouch, Greg Martin and Jim Giovannoni describe how Professor Emeritus Steve Tanksley influenced their work during the Liberty Hyde Bailey lecture June 10 at Call Auditorium.

Probing the pathways and genetic basis that controls fruit ripening; exploring the tomato plant’s immune response of plants; enhancing rice production by delving into the plant’s genome.

Those diverse research specialties teasing out the genetic mysteries of various plant share a common trait: a connection to Cornell Professor Emeritus Steve Tanksley.

In the Liberty Hyde Bailey Lecture, held June 10 as part of Reunion Weekend at Call Auditorium, faculty members Greg Martin, Jim Giovannoni and Susan McCouch, Ph.D. ’90 – all alumni of Tanksley’s lab – celebrated their mentor and his contributions to plant breeding and genetics. Now faculty members affiliated with the School of Integrative Plant Science (SIPS), Tanksley’s protégées each presented a lecture centered on their realm of expertise, followed by a panel discussion on genomics and the future of agriculture.

Tanksley arrived at Cornell as an assistant professor in 1985 and set to work creating the first chromosomal maps of plants. He revolutionized plant breeding by pioneering genetic techniques essential to modern crop development, paving the way for improvements in fruit size, nutritional value and disease resistance of major food crops, said College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Dean Kathryn J. Boor, who introduced the speakers and led the panel discussion.

“Steve not only had the vision to transform the whole field of plant breeding, his legacy also includes mentoring the next generation of groundbreaking plant scientists here at Cornell and building the university into a world leader in genomics,” Boor said.

She noted that Cornell’s ranking as the top global university for plant science stems in many ways from Tanksley’s innovations, including his leadership of the Cornell Genomics Initiative. That effort, which began in 1997, coordinated strengths across the life sciences and lifted Cornell’s standing as a global leader in genome mapping. His visionary scientific work drew ambitious students who continued on his legacy of discovery into various aspects of plant research.

Martin, a former National Science Foundation postdoctoral student in Tanksley’s lab and now a professor in the Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology Section of SIPS and the Boyce Schulze Downey Professor at the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI), specializes in the immune response activated by plants against bacterial infection. In his lecture, Martin explored the role of genomics in identifying and deploying disease-resistance genes in plants. He pointed out that 10 percent of food production is lost to disease, making plant disease a crucial concern for human well-being.

Giovannoni, a USDA-ARS research scientist, adjunct professor in the Plant Biology Section of SIPS and professor at BTI, uses the tomato as a model plant to investigate fruit ripening. He said that food security depends largely on three pillars: production, quality and food decay. A more robust understanding of fruit ripening could reduce food waste and help protect the diet of those in food-insecure regions of the world, he said.

Harnessing genomics “represents a lot more opportunity for plant scientists like us, because as we understand more the biology of these systems, we will be able to understand which of these issues we can actually do something about,” said Giovannoni, a former postdoctoral student in Tanksley’s lab.

McCouch, the Barbara McClintock Professor in the Plant Breeding and Genetics Section of SIPS and adjunct professor at BTI, is heading the Genomic and Open-source Breeding Informatics Initiative (GOBII). The project matches plant breeders with software engineers and geneticists to better mine data accumulated by scientists as they explore new ways to advance science through data management. An expert on rice and rice breeding, McCouch is using genetic mapping to understand complex traits, work that she said has been inspired by Tanksley’s mentorship.

“It’s a rare opportunity that we get to tell someone who has influenced our lives so deeply how much we appreciate what they pass on,” McCouch said during her lecture. “It also resonates back to each of us as professors hoping to influence another generation of students.”

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

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