Plant geneticist Buckler awarded first NAS ag prize

by Laura Lloyd
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“Corn varieties bred for North American climates do not work in Africa, producing only about one-fifth the harvest as produced in the United States,” the USDA said.
 
WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S. — Edward Buckler, a plant geneticist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), will be the first person to receive the National Academy of Science’s prize in food and agriculture sciences.

The $100,000 award will be presented at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) annual meeting on April 30.  The prize is endowed by contributions from the non-profit Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The prize is in recognition of his work using large scale genomic approaches to identify genes with crop traits, giving plant breeders’ swifter access to key genes and reducing the time required to improve traits critical for enhancing food security.

Buckler’s work has resulted in the development of a vast store of scientific information about the natural genetic diversity of maize, allowing the best genetic variation to be rapidly combined to produce a more productive, sustainable crop that addresses specific concerns such as disease tolerance, nutrient quality or growing environment, the USDA said.

The research has ramifications for food security both in the United States and across the world.

“Corn varieties bred for North American climates do not work in Africa, producing only about one-fifth the harvest as produced in the United States,” the USDA said. “Millions of hungry, poor people don’t have the hundred years it would take to repeat what conventional breeding did before.”

At the ARS Plant, Soil and Nutrition Research Unit in Ithaca, N.Y., Buckler and collaborating scientists already have developed maize varieties with 15 times the typical level of vitamin A that could provide a solution to a life-threatening deficiency common in the developing world. He also has done work that addresses other important traits in plants that help alleviate food insecurity, the USDA said, including local adaptation, drought tolerance and disease resistance.

The USDA said Buckler is a “champion of open data and innovative partnerships,” which has helped him develop affordable techniques for analyzing natural genomic diversity that have become widespread, used to analyze more than a thousand different species and even impacted research on the human genome. His open-source software and databases analyzing natural variation are being used by thousands of research groups worldwide.

The NAS Prize in Food and Agriculture Sciences recognizes research by a mid-career scientist in the United States who has made “an extraordinary contribution to agriculture or to the understanding of a biology of a species fundamentally important to agriculture or food production,” the USDA said.
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