Researcher with NIFA roots garners international prize

Jorge Dubcovsky, professor of plant sciences at University of California–Davis, is co-winner of the 2014 Wolf Prize in agriculture.  Photo courtesy of Jorge Dubcovsky.

One of America’s most renowned agricultural researchers, a man who has already collected two of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) top honors, has now earned international recognition with the Wolf Prize in Agriculture. The Wolf Foundation began awarding six prizes — agriculture, the arts, chemistry, mathematics, medicine, and physics — in 1978 to recognize outstanding scientists and artists for achievements in the interest of mankind and friendly relations among peoples.

Jorge Dubcovsky, a professor of plant sciences at the University of California–Davis and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute–Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation investigator, is sharing the Wolf Prize with Leif Andersson, from Uppsala University in Sweden. Dubcovsky’s previous awards include USDA’s National Research Initiative Discovery Award and the USDA Secretary’s Honor Award. Dubcovsky will receive the Wolf Prize June 1 at Knesset Israel (the Israeli Parliament) from Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Dubcovsky is a plant geneticist who works with wheat to improve disease resistance, nutritional value, yield, and adaptability to a changing environment. Over the years, USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) has provided more than $15 million to fund more than 20 of Dubcovsky’s research projects.

“NIFA funding has been the central pillar in the support of my research,” he said. “These grants support critical crop research and crop improvement and provide valuable resources for the public breeding programs to organize themselves at a national level through Coordinated Agricultural Project (CAP) grants.”

One of his recent NIFA grants is a $5 million Triticeae CAP (TCAP) project to improve barley and wheat germplasm. Triticeae is from the family of grasses that includes wheat, barley, and rye. Wheat products alone account for about 20 percent of calories consumed by humans. 

Dubcovsky’s TCAP team used markers to identify the gene variants that control the most desirable of the plant’s traits. They then created a Triticeae Toolbox to provide this information to plant breeders so they can develop improved wheat and barley lines. Further, the team is developing a national education network to train 29 doctoral candidates in plant breeding.

TCAP also features collaborations with minority-serving institutions to attract new students to the agricultural sciences, which is important to the professor. “I hope (that the Wolf Prize) will help my program attract brilliant and enthusiastic young researchers,” he said.

As a side benefit, growers of follow-on crops may also profit from Dubcovsky-led wheat research. According to an article published May 14, 2013, in Crop Science, three bread wheat varieties created by TCAP carry a gene that is resistant to root-knot nematodes (plant-parasitic worms). The wheat encourages the nematodes to grow, but the worms cannot eat the wheat. As a result, they starve, do not reproduce, and die out — which allows the next crop to grow in a relatively nematode-free field.

Looking to the future, Dubcovsky — who was born and raised in Argentina and received his bachelors and doctoral degrees in biological sciences from the University of Buenos Aires — is enthusiastic about employing new high-throughput sequencing technologies. “We will continue pushing hard to complete the sequencing of most wheat genes across our mutant populations,” he said. “We expect to have a public database where people can search for available mutations and then request the seeds. We think this will be a fantastic resource to study gene function in wheat.”

Through federal funding and leadership for research, education, and Cooperative Extension programs, NIFA focuses on investing in science and solving critical issues impacting people's daily lives and the nation's future.