The overall mission of the Department of Plant Breeding & Genetics is genetic improvement of crop plants for the benefit of society. The Cornell group has a long and distinguished history of service to New York State, U.S., and global agriculture and is the only Plant Breeding & Genetics Department in the country. It is currently a leader in the development of innovative molecular genetic strategies for crop improvement. It is also one of the very few programs actually training plant breeders for the future.
The Department has 11 tenured/tenure-track faculty members, of whom five are women. Two faculty members hold 50% or greater administrative appointments in CALS; others play important roles in University-wide programs. Adjunct/joint appointments and rehires of retirees help amplify faculty resources. Plant Breeding faculty have been leaders of the Cornell New Life Sciences Initiative and are very active as speakers at international meetings, editors of professional journals and members of national and international review panels.
Research in the Department encompasses a broad range of activities, from basic studies of crop plant genomes to field evaluations in multiple locations. Crop targets include cereals (corn, rice, wheat, oats, barley, triticale, teff), potato, alfalfa, and fruits/vegetables (tomato, pepper, squash, cucumber, melon, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, beans). Some projects focus on problems specific to New York State, while others have national or global relevance. Host plant resistance to pathogens and pests, for reduced dependence on chemical pesticides, is an area of special emphasis. High yield, enhanced quality, and suitability for sustainable agriculture are further goals. Releases from the applied breeding programs perform well and in some cases are widely grown.
One measure of the program's success is its broad base and high level of external funding. More than $8 million of outside funding for 2003 was received from competitive federal or state grants, special federal grants, foundations, industry, and growers' groups, among others.
Graduate and postdoctoral training is a key aspect of the Department program. In 2003, faculty supervised approximately 40 graduate students, 60% of whom are from 15 countries outside the U.S. About half of the students are women. Links with industry (e.g., Pioneer, Seminis, Zeneca) have provided support for several graduate assistantships. Some of our graduate courses are part of the Plant Molecular Biology sequence and are cross-listed in Plant Biology (e.g.,. Plant Genome Organization, Molecular Breeding/Genetic Diversity, Plant Biotechnology). Training in bioinformatics (e.g., Analysis of Sequence Similarity) is being added to the curriculum. Our graduates succeed in finding positions that utilize their training in diverse academic, industrial, and government institutions. Alumni are leaders in agricultural programs in over 50 countries.
Departmental teaching is primarily at the graduate level, but several undergraduate courses in plant breeding/genetics, tissue culture, and genetic diversity are offered. A new Transnational Learning Initiative video streams department courses to locations around the world. Undergrads also participate in faculty research programs.
The Department conducts many extension/outreach activities, providing reliable advice about the crop varieties that perform best in New York/Northeast through comparative trials, publications, field days, training programs, seed conferences, etc. Faculty members also interact with industry and growers' groups, national programs in developing countries, international centers, etc. Susan McCouch, the first CALS Professor of International Agriculture to work on molecular genetics for crop improvement, conducts global outreach in this area. The Center for Genomic Diversity, headed by Steve Kresovich, provides training in modern genetic assessment techniques for a broad national/international audience.
Department facilities are currently divided between laboratories/offices in Bradfield or Emerson Halls and greenhouse/fieldhouse operations in the Guterman area, with 300 acres of plots on experimental farms at various locations. The Kresovich lab is located in the Biotechnology Building. Labs of Tanksley, McCouch and Smith are part of the new Plant Genomics Facility in Emerson Hall.
Several special programs are associated with the Department. The New York Seed Improvement Project produces and distributes certified seed and serves as the official seed certifying agency of the NYS Department of Agriculture & Markets. The USDA Center for Agricultural Bioinformatics organizes molecular and agricultural information about rice, small grains, Solanaceae, and crucifer crops for global electronic access. Headquarters of the Cornell-Eastern Europe-Mexico (CEEM) Project on Potato Late Blight Control are in Plant Breeding. The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) also has close links with the Department.