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Photo: Robert W. Holley
ARS scientist Robert Holley won the Nobel Prize in 1968 for leading the team that determined the molecular structure of transfer RNA from concentrated yeast cells.

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USDA Lab Renamed in Honor of Nobel-Winning Researcher

By Ann Perry
May 12, 2008

ITHACA, N.Y., May 12, 2008—A U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) laboratory here will be renamed today for a renowned USDA scientist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine along with two colleagues in 1968.

The U.S. Plant, Soil and Nutrition Laboratory (PSNL), operated by USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS), will be renamed The Robert W. Holley Center for Agriculture and Health during a ceremony today. ARS is USDA's chief intramural scientific research agency.

Holley, a former ARS scientist, shared the Nobel award with Har Gobind Khorana and Marshall W. Nirenberg. Holley is the only ARS scientist to receive a Nobel Prize. From 1957 until 1964, he worked for ARS as a research chemist at the PSNL, which is located on the Cornell University campus in Ithaca. Holley died in 1993.

Holley and his research team determined the molecular structure of transfer RNA from concentrated yeast cells, marking the first time that a nucleic acid from any living organism had been sequenced. The majority of this research was conducted by Holley's research group at the ARS laboratory.

"Dr. Holley's findings about the genetic structure of living organisms served as a crucial foundation for studies in genetics and genomics, which are essential for our agricultural research," said USDA Research, Education, and Economics (REE) Under Secretary Gale Buchanan. "His work helped us devise tools to search the genetic makeup of plants and animals for beneficial traits such as improved nutritional quality and disease resistance that we can use for developing improved varieties of food, feed and livestock."

Under the supervision of Holley Center Director Leon Kochian, scientists at the ARS lab in Ithaca conduct research that builds on the discoveries of Holley and his team. These studies employ cutting-edge technologies in genomics, molecular and statistical genetics, computational biology, biochemistry and physiology.

Using these tools, ARS scientists investigate ways to improve biologically-based integrated pest management, enhance plant nutritional quality, and improve plant resistance to unfavorable environmental conditions and diseases. A new $40 million facility is being designed for the Holley Center, and will support Holley's legacy of research excellence.

Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey from New York's 22nd District will speak at today's ceremony. Other speakers include USDA-REE Under Secretary Buchanan, ARS Associate Administrator Antoinette Betschart, Kochian, and Steve Kresovich, Cornell University associate provost for life sciences and director of the Institute for Genomic Diversity.