Rod Wing Receives 2004 USDA Honor

June 30, 2004
Rod Wing. Photo by Jason Talag.
Rod Wing. Photo by Jason Talag.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann M. Veneman has recognized Rod Wing, a University of Arizona professor of plant sciences and director of the Arizona Genomics Institute, with a 2004 USDA Honor Award for his role in decoding the rice genome. Wing and his colleagues at the UA have finished sequencing and analyzing chromosome 10 and the "short arm" of chromosome 3 of the rice genome.

This is the first time this award has gone to a UA faculty member.

The Honor Awards are the most prestigious awards given by the USDA. They recognize outstanding contributions to agriculture, to consumers of agricultural products and to the USDA's ability to serve rural America.

"Wing's contribution in sequencing the rice genome is enormous, based on the fact that close to half the world's population uses rice as their principal dietary component," says Eugene Sander, vice provost and dean of the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. "In addition, this sequencing information will hugely impact the improvement of cereal crops, which will benefit all of mankind."

Wing, who is a member of the UA's Institute for Biomedical Science and Biotechnology, received the award along with other members of the U.S. Rice Genome Sequencing Consortium, at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. on June 25.

The USDA, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy all created the consortium as part of a 10-nation effort called the International Rice Genome Sequencing Project (IRGSP). The Japan-led project includes the United States, China, Taiwan, South Korea, India, Thailand, France, Brazil and the United Kingdom.

"This is a group award," says Ed Kaleikau, national program leader of competitive grants for the USDA Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service. "Rod Wing has contributed a lot of knowledge, expertise and resources to the group effort through his leadership of the whole consortium. Not only does this project have worldwide benefit in improving a crop that feeds half the world, it also contributes to our biological understanding of other cereal grasses, including wheat, corn, oats, barley and sorghum."

The 12 chromosomes of the rice genome, totaling nearly 430,000,000 base pairs, were divided among the participating countries, with the United States assigned chromosomes 3, 10 and half of chromosome 11.

Lead principal investigators on the U.S. project include Wing, Richard McCombie from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, Robin Buell from the Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), Maryland, and Joachim Messing from Rutgers University, New Jersey.

"We want to decode the rice genome to understand the regulatory mechanisms for disease resistance and drought control," Wing said. "Once we understand how this works we can design more drought-tolerant, disease-resistant crops and grow them in a more environmentally friendly way on less land. We can use fewer pesticides and less water."

Wing, who came to the UA in 2002, had worked Clemson University since 1996 on the sequencing of most of chromosome 10, which he later helped finish at the UA, together with the "short arm" of chromosome 3. The Clemson group also developed a framework to sequence the rice genome, a physical map used by the entire IRGSP in completing the sequence.The milestone project involves an unprecedented world collaboration among academic, government and private sector entities from the 10 countries. The entire genetic draft has been released for full and unrestricted public access on GenBank, a National Institutes of Health database, allowing rice improvement, comparative cereal studies and basic plant research to proceed simultaneously worldwide. Rice's compact genome is considered a model plant for research in cereals.

"We are very pleased that Rod Wing and his colleagues are receiving this special recognition for their work on the rice genome," says Robert Leonard, head of the UA plant sciences department. "The full impact of this accomplishment will be realized as scientists throughout the world use the genome sequence to discover knowledge and employ the genes to improve crop yields. "This accomplishment represents an essential step in addressing and solving problems of food production for a growing human population, Leonard said. The IRGSP will finish sequencing the rice genome by year's end. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has designated 2004 as "The Year of Rice."