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Ron Phillips

University Regents Professor of Agronomy and Plant Genetics Ron Phillips has won the coveted 2007 Wolf Prize in Agriculture.

Phillips wins Wolf Prize

U professor was first to generate whole corn plants from cells grown in culture

By Kristi Goldade

Feb. 27, 2007; updated April 10, 2007

University Regents Professor of Agronomy and Plant Genetics Ron Phillips has won the coveted 2007 Wolf Prize in Agriculture. In 1976 German philanthropist Ricardo Wolf established the annual award for agriculture, chemistry, mathematics, medicine, physics, and the arts.

The $100,000 prize will be given at an award ceremony May 13 in Jerusalem. To date, 232 scientists and artists have been honored.

According to the Wolf Foundation, Phillips won for groundbreaking discoveries in genetics and genomics. He was the first to generate whole corn plants from cells grown in culture, laying the foundation for genetically modifying corn plants and other cereals.

Phillips's latest project involves increasing the amount of oil in high oil corn from 3.5 percent to 20 percent to produce biorenewable energy.

"It is much easier to work with millions of corn cells than with millions of corn plants," says Phillips. "We have discovered how to identify unique traits in the cells, to choose specific cells, and finally, to grow them into plants."

Farmers across the world have begun to farm with these improved seeds. The latest data shows a 13 percent worldwide rise in the use of biotechnology seeds. This means that 1.4 billion commercial acres are now growing genetically modified plants.

CAMPUS RECEPTION TO HONOR PHILLIPS APRIL 11

A public reception to honor Professor Phillips will be attended by Deputy Consul General of Israel to the Midwest Andy David, Jewish Community Relations Council executive director Steve Hunegs, President Bruininks, and Provost Sullivan. April 11, 2:30-3:30 p.m., Cherrywood Room, St. Paul Student Center. See the news release.

Phillips believes it's safe to modify the genes of plants. "In 1987, the National Academy of Sciences stated that the technology was safe," Phillips says. "Twenty years later, it remains reliable. What we must monitor is the product, and this issue is not unique to genetic engineering. Before a seed can be grown, it must undergo rigorous regulatory processes."

Studies in Phillips's lab also led to the identification of cells and plants with increased levels of essential amino acids and the development of an efficient DNA sequence mapping system used by plant scientists in genomics research.

Phillips received his doctoral degree in genetics from the University of Minnesota, and his research at the U was one of the earliest programs in modern plant biotechnology related to agriculture.

He is world renowned for his leadership and service in international agricultural research communities, and for his teaching and training in the plant genetics field. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Today, Phillips is focused on genomics research--looking at all the genes as a dynamic system rather than at individual genes. His latest project involves increasing the amount of oil in high oil corn from 3.5 percent to 20 percent to produce biorenewable energy. Another project is solving the human pathogen problem of E. coli. He and a colleague are working to identify a pair of genes that counteract the harmful bacteria.


Kristi Goldade is an editorial assistant with University Relations.