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UGA Raises Stakes in Plant Genetics Research

The high-tech excitement of the University of Georgia's plant genetics research is ratchetting higher with the addition of Andrew Paterson to its faculty as a professor in plant biotechnology and genomics.

A highly regarded researcher in structural genomics, Paterson provides a key part of the scientific expertise in the Applied Genetics Technology (AGTEC) Resource's focus on plant biotechnology.

Andy Paterson, research geneticistPaterson's appointment

"He's certainly an outstanding young scientist with a tremendous track record," said Joe Key, UGA vice president for research and associate provost. "He's a bright, aggressive, hard-working, around-the- clock kind of guy, and we're exceedingly pleased to have him on our faculty. Andy brings great strength and intellectual leadership to the AGTEC initiative and the application of genomics to crop improvement."

Paterson's appointment is in both the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, in the crop and soil sciences department, and in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, in the botany and genetics departments. Plant breeders and geneticists in the two colleges developed the AGTEC initiative.

The partnership across colleges and with the Georgia Research Alliance made it possible to attract Paterson to UGA from Texas A&M, where he held the Christine Richardson Endowed Professorship in crop and soil sciences.

"It was important that the state of Georgia, via GRA and UGA, has made a major commitment to plant gene discovery and utilization, in the form of the new AGTEC center," Paterson said.

Paterson at UGA

He officially joined the UGA faculty Jan. 1. A new genomics research facility in the Riverbend Research Labs is expected to be ready by April 1. His research will eventually expand into a new $8 million AGTEC building, which is still in the planning stages, off College Station Road at Riverbend Road.

Paterson joins a high-caliber team of scientists with diverse specialties in plant genetics. His proficiency in structural genomics provides a vital link in the growing synergy of the AGTEC research.

Genomics explained

Simply put, genomics accelerates the rate of discovery of genes. A new field based on the technology of gene sequencing, genomics involves sequencing whole genomes, or genetic blueprints, of plants or animals by using newly developed DNA sequence technology.

"Genomics is a growing area of basic genetics," said John McDonald, UGA genetics department head. "The University of Georgia is a leader in plant molecular biology. It makes sense to bring in someone doing cutting-edge research in genomics."

The connection to UGA

Paterson's research had associated him with a number of UGA scientists in previous projects. With the assembly of the AGTEC research team, he found "the intellectual environment at UGA and potential for new collaborations ... attractive," he said.

The focus of his research, too, became a natural attraction to UGA. Much of his earlier work has involved developing molecular maps for cotton, peanuts, Bermuda grass and other plants important in Georgia.

"Many of the plant species my lab has worked on in the past are priorities in Georgia, so our prior experience and tools are relevant here," he said.

The future of genomics

Plant genomics is entering a "golden age," he said, with most genes in major crops yet to be identified. "In the next 10 to 20 years, the most important genes in most major crops will be sequenced," he said. "However, this is only the beginning, creating an informatic resource that will become central to life sciences research in the 21st century.

"As both an international leader in life sciences research and the land-grant institution that supports Georgia agriculture," he said, "the University of Georgia must stay abreast of these new capabilities."

Genomics' effect for farmers

Al Smith, department head for crop and soil sciences, said the state's farmers will benefit greatly from Paterson's research.

"Our biggest gain will be in germ plasm and cultivar improvement," he said. "But his research, as well as his intellectual leadership, will help us in a number of disciplines."

Paterson's strengths

Perhaps Paterson's greatest strength, Smith said, is his ability to put together collaborative research and secure grants, gifts and contracts ($10.3 million over the past eight years) to fund them.

"He sees critical research areas and how they fit together and provides leadership in getting the work done," he said. "He's able to attract excellent postdoctoral associates and graduate students and direct their work on important research."

That ability is a big reason the university sought out Paterson, said John Ingle, UGA associate vice president for research and director of biological resources and the biotechnology program.

"Part of the idea of putting AGTEC together was to hire someone who could provide this kind of intellectual leadership to the resource," Ingle said.

UGA molecular geneticist Rich Meagher said Paterson also has a rare ability to stay at the top of both basic and applied research.

"He has shown the practical value of genomics in an elegant way in cotton by finding a gene that makes stronger fibers in a species that didn't produce fibers," he said. "Few people would be solving such practical problems and still be doing such great basic research."

Putting it all together to benefit Georgia

Paterson said these apparently divergent interests arise partly from the nature of his scientific field.

"During the domestication of crop plants from their wild ancestors, humans have created excellent 'model systems' for aspects of plant biology research," he said. "These model systems also happen to be economically important crops. So our research tends to apply cutting-edge technologies to agriculturally important questions."

(Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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