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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Opening remarks
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June 5, 2007

 

Plant Gene Expression Center

20th Anniversary Symposium

 

G. G. Still-Opening Comments

  

When Sarah Hake and Peter Quail and I discussed what they would like me to contribute to this symposium they suggested some historical reflections as to why and how this Institutional Experiment occurred.  My preference is that you be exposed to cutting edge science rather than historical ramblings.

 

I have long appreciated Albert Einstein's quotation that " imagination is more important than knowledge."  Therefore, it is my hope that the next day and a half will stimulate your imagination.

 

Let us take a brief look at what brought about the initiation of the Institutional Experiment-the Plant Gene Expression Center.

 

In the middle of the 1970s the Agricultural Research Service began to restructure their fundamental plant science programs to focus on basic questions.  In 1977, I joined the National Program Staff to take responsibility for the basic plant science program.  At that time, the Congress became interested in photosynthesis, biological nitrogen fixation, and other fundamental questions.  This opened a window of opportunity to bring focus to funding and organization for investigations in support of these more basic questions.  After successful budget cycles the Agency was in a position to begin to hire talented young scientists---for example at the University of Illinois, Charles Arntzen, John Boyer, Don Ort and Archie Portis, joined Bill Ogren, who hired a young Post Doc, Chris Somerville.

The window of opportunity had begun to open further.

 

In the early 1980s, while serving as Chief Scientist, responsible for Plant and Entomology Sciences in the office of the Secretary of Agriculture, I had the opportunity to begin an overview of how well USDA was integrating the new biotechnology into its State and Federal research programs.

 

  It was at that time that I was introduced to Dr. Bill Brown, lead geneticist and plant breeder for Pioneer Hybrid Seeds. He was then establishing the Board on Agriculture, National Academy of Sciences.  This dialogue laid the foundation for the concept that would become the Plant Gene Expression Center.  Bill Brown also brought the National Academy of Sciences into a position to support the Center.

 

Many people in positions of influence are responsible for the implementation of the PGEC.  Anson Bertrand, Assistant Secretary for Science and Education; Terry Kinney, Administrator, and Mary Carter, Associate Administrator of ARS; and many others were instrumental in assuring the survival of this

“free radical” for science.

 

The next question was, where to establish this Center.  There were many universities with strong programs in Agriculture that were convinced that their campus was the perfect location.  This now becomes “political science” rather than science.

 

A window of opportunity occurred in California on the Berkeley campus when Chancellor Mike Hyman quickly embraced an opportunity and Jim Kendrick, Mike Freeling, Milt Schroth, and many others, were made available to become part of making the Center a reality.

 

In these early stages two key factors were necessary for success: first, the ARS needed to bring new programs and resources into the Western Regional Research Center campus, and second, the University of California, Berkeley, recognized an opportunity to enhance their plant science programs with outstanding young scientists and students.

 

As in any major event, a great many divergent forces must be in agreement, albeit for a short period of time, in order to maintain the window of opportunity.  That happened in the case of the Plant Gene Expression Center.

 

Let us recall 20 years ago that the horizon was ablaze with the enthusiasm for the application of biotechnology for Agriculture.  The emerging technology appeared to offer unparalleled opportunities for Agriculture. Gene manipulation, even at the level of DNA, did not, and does not, necessarily lead to the understanding of Gene structure, organization, function, and expression in crop plants. The Agriculture Research Service had grave concerns that because of the enormous expectations for the application of DNA technology to production Agriculture-------concerns due to the recognized complexity of the Plant genome; concern for the lack of documented experience and success in this field of biology; concern that the expectations would not be met and that corporate enthusiasm would wane------in fact, concerns that the opportunity for the application of biotechnology for Agriculture would be missed.

 

It was against this historical background that the Plant Gene Expression Center began.  The center is a 20-year experiment: An experiment to understand the workings of informational molecules that provide the genetics of our plant systems.  The Center is part of a community rapidly developing technology that will answer the questions of structure and function; of regulation of development; of how to use traditional genetics, molecular genetics, molecular biology and biochemistry to sustain productivity and the value-added opportunities for future production Agriculture.

 

The Plant Gene Expression Center is now an adolescent.  The blending of two diverse institutional cultures to provide the experimental environment is unique.  The resulting " hybrid-vigor" is recorded in the Center's productivity.  This was part of the experiment.  History is presently being written.

 

The long-term outcome is in the hands, not only of the men and women who are the Plant Gene expression Center, but also in the hands of the users of the Center's products.

 

Philip H. Abelson wrote in his Science editorial # 1465, published 27 September 1991, and titled "Plant Gene Expression Center.”  In this editorial he references the center's goals; he introduces the new staff; he discusses a bit of the proposed program, and then raises the following question--"one of the hazards now faced by the PGEC is pressure for immediate practical results.  In research, such an attitude often leads to unimaginative plodding activities.  Good scientists survive much more diligently and creatively to implement their own initiatives than to follow the dictates of others." The PGEC was designed so that imaginative scientists, supported by adequate funding with adequate technical support and adequate physical facilities, could pursue their scientific bliss while concurrently meeting the needs of world Agriculture through their imaginative innovations.

 

I am grateful that the Agriculture Research Service is supporting this somewhat radical idea.  I am grateful that they recognize, that with broad oversight, their goals too can be met through discovery research for Agriculture. I think that if Bill Brown, Philip Abelson, Anson Bertrand, Terry Kinney, Mike Hyman, and many others, were to visit the Plant Gene Expression Center today-----witness what this institutional experiment has accomplished in science for Agriculture, while providing a highly trained human resource that has spread around the world –they would say to you, the men and women who have carried this load, a job well done! Let us not forget that a job well done could not have been possible without the support and dedication of many--most of whom remained faceless and are seldom recognized.

 

Finally, at this point in history, we must come to the conclusion that the Institutional Experiment------ The Plant Gene Expression Center----- is a success.

I look forward to a wonderful symposium.

Thank you very much for the privilege of being part of this dynamic and productive experiment, providing science for Agriculture.

 

 

 


Last Modified: 8/14/2007