Most of us don’t feel the need to know everything about any fungus. Not so in Dr. Ralph Dean’s world. Dean is a professor of plant pathology, and the founding director of NC State’s new Fungal Genomics Laboratory (FGL). A relatively new faculty member, Dean is a great example of the genomic sciences research and teaching faculty attracted to NC State in the past few years.

Dean was recruited in 1999 from his position as associate director of the Clemson University Genomics Institute, an international center dedicated to applying genomics research to improve crop plants. He was able to transfer about $500,000 in research funding to NC State. Since arriving, he has brought in an additional $11.1 million in government and industry funding, making the FGL the world’s best funded, most cutting-edge laboratory addressing fungal genomics at a public university.

According to Dr. Johnny Wynne, associate dean for research in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, “This is what we were counting on when we took the risk of building Ralph a million-dollar office and laboratory suite on our Centennial Campus. We wanted the FGL to have what it needed to be the best.” Dean’s lab shares a new research building with the Bioinformatics Research Center and the Genome Research Laboratory, two university facilities with brainpower and millions of dollars of equipment that support the FGL and other genomics work at NC State.

A primary target of the FGL is the understanding of the interaction between rice and the rice blast fungus, Magnaporthe grisea, one of the main pathological threats to food supplies world wide. Enough rice is lost to the disease annually to feed 60 million people. Strains of the fungus attack other cereals including wheat and barley. It’s a major pestilence, particularly in developing countries.

In 1998, Dean helped launch the Rice Blast Genome Initiative, an international consortium with members from the United States, Europe and Asia pursuing genome sequencing and function for this important fungal pathogen. Long concerned with mechanisms of fungal disease and gene discovery work, he has specialized his research for this project, looking for the genes that are critical to rice blast disease and potential targets for intervention. “Simply put,” Dean says, “the question is: What is being produced by the rice blast fungus that is affecting the host plant?”

After characterizing several important genes, FGL staff have taken a more global approach to the study, mapping and studying the expression patterns of 400 genes from one of the rice blast’s seven chromosomes. The next step is to identify all the genes in the organism. “This has opened up the field of how fungal organisms perceive the environment and has put us in a groundbreaking position for elucidating the molecular basis of plant disease in general,” says Dean.

Dozens of other labs around the world are emulating the FGL’s strategy. “We’re right at the top of the pile,” Dean likes to say. But that was not his real goal. He’s really going after curbing world hunger.

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