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Former NMSU professor named a 2016 Japan Prize recipient

Former New Mexico State University professor Steven D. Tanksley was awarded with the 2016 Japan Prize for his extensive contributions to agriculture.


Two men shaking hands.
Steven D. Tanksley, right, former NMSU College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences professor, has been awarded by the Japan Prize Foundation for his contributions to Biological Production and Biological Environment. (Courtesy Photo)
Man speaking at a podium.
Steven D. Tanksley laid the foundation for modern crop breeding, earning him one of the two 2016 Japan Prizes. (Courtesy Photo)

Tanksley, Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor Emeritus of Cornell University and former NMSU Horticulture Department assistant professor, was awarded the 2016 Japan Prize to honor his contributions in the fields of biological production and biological environment.

After completing his studies at the University of California Davis in 1980, Tanksley was hired as an assistant professor in the Horticulture Department at NMSU. A significant part of his research time at NMSU was devoted to breeding chile peppers. The other part of his time was focused on developing the laboratory methods required for creating DNA-based genetic maps in crop plants.

“The work I did at NMSU eventually led to the first complete genome map of a crop plant, and was the foundation for subsequent work that has culminated in the Japan Prize,” Tanksley said. “I am certainly deeply grateful for the support and encouragement provided to me by NMSU and the College of Agriculture. My career could not have unfolded the way it did without that.”

The Japan Prize Foundation awards winners who are pioneers in the fields of materials and production and biological production and biological environment. The award recipients use their imaginative ideas to contribute to the advancement of science and technology, along with serving the peace and prosperity of mankind.

Tanksley was recognized for his contribution to modern crop breeding through research on development of molecular genetic analysis.

Tanksley has worked to achieve many contributions to the generation of molecular linkage maps of crops using molecular technology, development of innovative techniques for identifying productivity related genes and the application of genetic markers to crop improvement.

As a pioneer in his industry, Tanksley created chromosomal maps of crops using molecular genetic analysis and then developed a revolutionary technique to identify genes that are related to agricultural productivity.

These advancements began when Tanksley developed the chromosome maps for crops by applying molecular biology techniques to tomato and rice plants. He later developed a method to associate chromosome region with Quantitative Trait Loci, QTL. Through the isolation of QTL, Tanksley demonstrated that a particular mutation that occurs during the domestication process of wild species of tomato contributes to its fruit size.

These original developments, along with a few others, have since contributed to rapid progress in related research areas. Some of these areas are the development of molecular linkage maps for crops and livestock, the identification of agriculturally useful QTL and the sequence determination of whole genomes.

Crossbreeding was transformed from experience, intuition and luck to a predictive science with Tanksley’s developments. A technology known as Marker Assisted Selection, MAS, was developed after Tanksley’s research. MAS enabled systematic improvement of crops based on DNA markers. This technique offers advantages such as shortened breeding period and reliability of superior offspring selection. Now, MAS has become an indispensable method of crop development and livestock breeding, making it an outstanding contribution to the agricultural industry.

To honor Tanksley and the other award recipient, Hideo Hosono, the Japan Prize Foundation will host an award ceremony on April 20 in Tokyo. Each award recipient will receive a certificate of recognition, commemorative gold medal and a cash award of 50 million Japanese yen, about $420,000.