By Kim Kaplan
May 4, 2016
Agricultural Research Service (ARS) molecular biologist James J. Giovannoni is among the newest members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). One of the highest honors in the science community, NAS election recognizes significant achievements in original research.
Giovannoni, with ARS' Robert W. Holley Center for Agriculture and Health in Ithaca, New York, revolutionized the understanding of fruit ripening biology and genetics. Building on that work, he pioneered research in fruit ripening epigenetics, which is a natural layer of chemical instructions superimposed over DNA.
His 2002 landmark discovery of the tomato gene RIN, which regulates ethylene, opened a new frontier in understanding the biology of fruit ripening. It raised a real possibility that someday commercial farmers would grow better tasting tomatoes while meeting supermarket shelf-life and transportation needs.
But it is Giovannoni's discovery that epigenetics plays a pivotal role in tomato ripening that has opened the door to new ways of thinking about how plant development may be regulated genetically beyond the DNA sequence alone.
Giovannoni, working with colleagues in the United States, Great Britain and Israel, has shown that RIN-like genes also control ripening in melons, banana, and even strawberries. Since that discovery, Giovannoni and his colleagues have isolated and characterized other genes contributing to a broader understanding of ripening control and the regulation of fruit quality and nutritional value. His work with ARS and the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research at Cornell University has also helped lead the international effort to sequence the tomato genome contributing to indispensable genetic information for additional vegetable crops.
In 2015, Thomson Reuters named Giovannoni to its annual list of "Most Influential Scientific Minds," with his publications cited in the top one percent of researchers in plant and animal sciences. ARS is the in-house research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.