Perspectives Online

Faculty win USDA Honor Awards

Ralph Dean
Ralph Dean
College of Agriculture and Life Sciences faculty members figured prominently on two teams that won 2004 U.S. Department of Agriculture Honor Awards.

Dr. Ralph Dean, director of the Center for Integrated Fungal Research and a key contributor to the sequencing of the rice genome, was a member of a group of rice researchers recognized for its role in enhancing economic opportunities for agricultural producers.

At the same time, the North Carolina phosphorus loss assessment team, which included College faculty members along with representatives from state and federal agencies, also won an Honor Award.

The Secretary of Agriculture’s annual Honor Awards are the most prestigious awards given at the Department of Agriculture. They recognize USDA employees and members of the public who have made outstanding contributions supporting USDA’s mission. There were 102 award winners for 2004. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced Honor Award winners June 27 in Washington.

In April 2002, Dean joined other researchers in releasing the first draft genome sequence of the japonica subspecies of rice, one of two major rice subspecies. Dean’s work provided the framework for the genome’s sequencing and assembly.

Dean and his colleagues divided the rice genome into libraries of smaller fragments of DNA called bacterial artificial chromosomes, or BACs. Next, they identified sequence tag connectors, or small tags of DNA, that showed how the fragments fit together, as in a jigsaw puzzle. This “fingerprinting” technique gave researchers a snapshot of all the genes in the rice genome.

This framework of BACs allowed scientists to complete an in-depth sequence of the japonica genome, in an international initiative spearheaded by Japan and the United States. The American researchers sequenced chromosomes 3 and 10 of the rice genome, and Dean’s responsibility was to decode disease-response genes.

The phosphorus loss assessment team was the group winner in the Protecting and Enhancing the Nation’s Natural Resource Base and Environment category.

The team developed and tested a phosphorus loss assessment tool, or method of estimating the amount of phosphorus that may be transported from agricultural fields to surface or groundwater, said Dr. John Havlin, professor of soil science and team leader.

Havlin said the tool is being used by farmers in writing nutrient management plans for their farms. The plans are required by the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service if farmers are to participate in various federal agricultural programs.

New federal nutrient management guidelines require farmers under certain conditions to consider potential phosphorus losses to surface water and groundwater when they develop nutrient management plans. In the past, nutrient management plans were based on the amount of nitrogen crops could use.

Both nitrogen and phosphorus are nutrients and are necessary for plant growth, but both can also contaminate surface water and groundwater if applied to fields improperly or in excess of crop requirements. Havlin said concern about phosphorus contamination has mounted in recent years. The new federal rule and development of the phosphorus loss assessment tool are reflections of that concern.

Havlin said the new guideline is also being phased in by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources for all swine producers as part of their animal waste management plans. In the future, DENR will also implement similar nutrient management planning guidelines for poultry producers.

Other team members from the N.C. State Soil Science Department were Dr. Wendell J. Gilliam, Dr. David Crouse, Dr. Amy Johnson, Dr. Eugene Kamprath, Dr. Nathan Nelson and Dr. Deanna Osmond.

Also on the team from the College’s Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering were Dr. Robert Evans, Dr. John Parsons, Dr. Wayne Skaggs and Dr. Phil Westerman.

The team also included Lane Price and Roger Hansard with USDA-NRCS, Dr. Richard Reich and Dr. David Hardy from the Agronomic Division of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Steve Coffey and Carroll Pierce from DENR’s Division of Soil and Water Conservation, and Dr. Steve Hodges, a former N.C. State faculty member who is now at Virginia Tech.