Tomato Geneticist Charles Rick To Receive World Prize

November 04, 1997

Renowned geneticist and plant breeder Charles Rick, whose half-century of research at the University of California, Davis, forged a fundamental understanding of tomato genetics, has been selected to receive the first $200,000 Maseri Florio World Prize for Distinguished Research in Agriculture. The award, which recognizes outstanding achievement in agricultural research, will be presented Nov. 11 in Washington, D.C. It includes $100,000 for Rick and a matching amount for the institution or research program of his choice.

The Maseri Florio World Prize was established by Dr. Attilio Maseri and Francesca Maseri Florio of Italy to honor their son, Filippo, an international agricultural consultant, who was killed two years ago in an automobile accident. The biannual award is sponsored by the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where Filippo Maseri spent considerable time during his agricultural career.

Rick, 82, is known internationally among scientists and agriculturists as something of a modern-day Charles Darwin and Indiana Jones, all rolled into one. His research expeditions have taken him from the Galapagos Islands to the high Andes where he has collected hundreds of wild tomato relatives. While these escapades have been the stuff of which movies are made, they have yielded quite practical results. In his collection of wild tomatoes, for example, 42 disease-resistance genes have been identified and bred into commercial tomato varieties.

"Dr. Rick has been a research pioneer whose findings have had worldwide significance," said Clayton Yeuter, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and co-chair of the Maseri Florio World Prize Advisory Board. "His contributions have benefited almost every other vegetable and fruit crop grown around the world."

"Records are made to be broken, I suppose, but I can't imagine anyone ever matching Professor Rick's combination of first-rate research persistence as the ranking expert in his field, and depth of understanding of the science that he loves so much," said UC Davis Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef. "He is one of a kind."

Rick's career-long interest in tomatoes began in 1940 when he joined UC Davis' vegetable crops department. A senior professor immediately suggested that Rick take a look at unfruitful "bull" tomatoes, a proposal that immediately struck Rick as "a crazy thing to contemplate."

But a couple of months later the young researcher woke up in a cold sweat thinking, "My God, man, you have got to do this." His subsequent field research revealed a treasure chest of genetic conditions in the sterile plants, leading Rick to construct a genetic "linkage map" that pinpointed the locations of various mutant or variable genes on each of the tomato's 12 chromosomes. It was the beginning of his lifelong pioneering effort to map the tomato's collection of genes, known as its genome.

This early work laid the foundation for molecular maps that today make the tomato genome one of the best mapped plant genomes. Because it has been so well characterized genetically, the tomato serves as a research model for plant scientists and can be more readily modified for commercial use.

Rick's research led him on 15 genetic scavenger hunts to Andean South America, the homeland of the tomato, where he hunted for wild tomato varieties carrying useful genes. Among his discoveries were wild tomatoes growing near the tidelands of the Galapagos Islands, despite salty sprays that would have stunted or killed a domestic tomato plant. Later he also would discover wild tomato varieties that were resistant to temperature extremes, water-logging, drought, disease and insect pests, while others had characteristics such as increased sugar content and "jointless" stems.

He always returned from his field expeditions loaded with bags of wild tomato seeds to be examined for traits that could be bred into domestic tomatoes. Over the years that collection of seeds grew to a total of about 4,000 tomato lines, representing 1,000 wild tomato lines and 1,500 genetic mutants. It is now housed in the Rick Tomato Genetics Resource Center at UC Davis and is the largest and most valuable collection of its kind in the world. Rick has devoted countless hours to collecting, cataloging, maintaining and distributing the seeds worldwide to research colleagues in academia and industry.

This collection of genetic material becomes increasingly valuable as the native habitats of the wild tomatoes are lost to development. Many primitive and wild tomatoes collected by Rick are now extinct in their homelands. His collection serves as an irreplaceable reservoir of genetic variation that will be critical in solving future threats to tomato production, and in enhancing yield and nutritional value or extending production into marginal environments.

In addition to his gene mapping and tomato germplasm collection and conservation work, Rick also has conducted extensive tomato hybridization studies. For example, he demonstrated that genes for fruit quality could be transferred from green-fruited tomato species into domestic tomatoes.

Rick's scientific accomplishments have been recognized by election in 1967 to the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors for research scientists. He also has received the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Award, the Merit Award from the Botanical Society of America, the Genetic and Plant Breeding Award from the National Council of Commercial Plant Breeders, the Distinguished Economic Botanist Award from the Society of Economic Botany and the Presidential Award from the Crop Science Society of America.

"Frankly, I am really overwhelmed and deeply appreciative to be receiving this award," said Rick upon being selected to receive the Maseri Florio World Prize. "My career has just been a succession of exciting discoveries. I am the last person who needs to be honored, because I'm the one who has had all the fun." One of Rick's most enduring contributions has been in mentoring more than 45 students and postdoctoral fellows. Some of the world's most noted plant scientists in the fields of molecular genetics, breeding and germplasm conservation are products of Rick's scholarly and personal guidance.

Many former students noted that Rick instilled in them more than an understanding of plant science. In nominating Rick for the Maseri Florio prize, former student Bikram Gill, now a Distinguished University Professor and the Director of the Wheat Genetics Resource Center at Kansas State University, recalled that Rick always presented science as a "pleasurable lifestyle and yet relevant to the needs of humanity.

"Above all, he demonstrated how to be a true teacher to students and pass on the legacy and quest for knowledge to future generations," said Gill.

Media contacts:
-- Patricia Bailey, UC Davis News Service, (916) 752-9843,
-- Doug Parrott, Bozell Worldwide, Omaha, Neb., (402) 978-4261
-- Theresa Klein, University of Nebraska Foundation, (402) 472-2151

University of California - Davis

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