UCLA Plant Biologist Robert B. Goldberg Elected to National Academy of Sciences


UCLA plant biologist Robert B. Goldberg was elected today to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences "in recognition of his distinguished and continuing achievements in original research," the academy announced Tuesday.

Membership in the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors that can be accorded an American scientist or engineer, is based on election by the academy's members. Goldberg is among 72 new members elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

"Robert Goldberg is an outstanding scientist, and his election to the National Academy of Sciences is richly deserved," said UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale. "He is a highly creative scientist whose work is at the intellectual forefront of the field of plant genomics. Professor Goldberg is also an exceptional teacher. He loves teaching undergraduates, and is extraordinarily good at it. We are fortunate to have him as a member of the UCLA faculty."

With Goldberg's selection, 33 UCLA faculty members now have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Goldberg, UCLA professor of cell, molecular, and developmental biology, and co-director of the Seed Institute, has won many awards for his research on gene expression during plant development. His research achievements include the genetic engineering of a hybridization system that works universally in major crop plants.

"I'm speechless," Goldberg said upon hearing of his election. "This is an incredible honor. I couldn't have done this research without the hard work of the exceptional students and postdoctoral scholars who have worked in my lab over the years, and without this amazing university that I love so much. This honor is a tribute to UCLA and to all of the people I have worked with for more than two decades."

The University of California and Ceres Inc., an agricultural biotechnology company, formed a partnership in 1999 to create a multicampus "institute without walls," including the Seed Institute for plant molecular biology and a Plant Genome Center at UCLA with the most sophisticated machine for DNA sequencing at any university.

Molecular and genetic techniques make it possible to identify and isolate every gene in plant chromosomes, and define its function.

"We're in a new era where genetic engineering opens the possibility to use plants as factories of novel chemicals — and this will change the economics of agriculture," Goldberg said. "When people look back 1,000 years from now, they will say that this was the beginning of directing our biological destiny.

"We are already able to design plants containing better nutrients for human consumption, plants that are insect-resistant, or that are resistant to environment-friendly herbicides. In the future we will be able to move genes from exotic plants or from other organisms into crop plants, engineer plants as factories for vaccines or pharmaceuticals, and increase a plant's photosynthetic efficiency. We may even be able to do away with fossil fuels, and use plant derivatives as the source of fuel for cars. These changes will greatly benefit mankind and the environment.

"We will be able to answer such questions as which genes determine the architecture of a plant, and how they work," Goldberg said. "Our goal is to find the genes that control the earliest phases of plant development."

Genomics is the ability to study the complete set of instructions for making an organism — all of its genes — rather than individual genes.

"The emerging field of plant genomics offers great promise to identify all of the genes necessary to program the entire life cycle of major crop plants, and to harvest these genes to make the 'super plants' of the 21st century," Goldberg said. "In the old days — a few years ago — we would look at one plant gene at a time. Now we can look at as many genes as we want. We can see how groups of genes are regulated. We can look at 10,000 genes at a time to find a needle in a haystack."

Plants have 25,000–50,000 genes, and very little is known about the vast majority of these genes, said Goldberg, who is also a co-founder of Ceres and a member of its board of directors. "We want to learn what the genetic control systems are; we want to learn about the building blocks," Goldberg said.

How soon will the agricultural revolution arrive?

"It's here already," he answered. "All the technology necessary to engineer a plant exists. Genetic engineering of plants is old stuff now. More than 30 percent of all crop plants in the United States are genetically engineered. Ten years from now, it will be close to 100 percent. We can now sequence a plant genome, and we can study the activity of thousands of genes at a time; genomics is changing the face of agriculture.

"Although I cannot predict what kind of products will result from genomics discoveries, I can assure you we'll find something significant."

"The idea with the Seed Institute was to create a new way of doing science at a university," Goldberg said. "The professors, students and postdoctoral scholars would work collaboratively on one important issue, such as how to make a seed, and undergraduates would participate in state-of-the-art genetics research as part of the research team. As a rule, in the field of life sciences research, academic investigators work on separate projects in separate labs. However, to tackle major scientific problems, a critical mass of technology and brainpower is required. I was worried that the most exciting plant research would be transferred to industry. I thought I had about a one in a trillion chance of pulling it off — but here we are!"

The National Academy of Sciences was established in 1863 by an act of Congress, signed by Abraham Lincoln, that calls on the academy to act as an official adviser to the federal government, upon request, in any matter of science or technology. The academy is a private organization of scientists and engineers "dedicated to the furtherance of science and its use for the general welfare."



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