This blog was first posted at Nature Ecology & Evolution Community on 31 October 2017
Last week in Stockholm the forest geneticist Prof. Ron Sederoff was awarded the Marcus Wallenberg Prize. Informally known as the “Nobel Prize for Forestry”, this two million Swedish Krona award is presented by the King of Sweden each year. It is the first time for a decade that the prize has gone to a biologist.
In the 1980s, Ron Sederoff realised that molecular genetics had the potential to transform research on trees. He gave up his research on Drosophila (here is a Nature paper he published on the Dumpy locus in 1967) and started to work on the large, long-lived, experimentally intractable organisms that are forest trees. For over 30 years, Sederoff devoted his career to pioneering the application of the latest genetic and genomic methods to pine. He has nurtured a global community of scientists branching out into spruce, eucalyptus, oak, chestnut, poplar and many other species.
The prize was awarded to him for his work on the pine genome, in which he has discovered many genes involved in disease resistance (see a PNAS paper here, for example), growth (here is a review), and lignin biosynthesis (here is a review). He was heavily involved in the sequencing of the American Chestnut genome for ecosystem restoration.
Tree genomics researchers from all over the world gathered for the award event, where they mingled with Scandinavian industrialists and Royalty.
Two things particularly struck me:
First, the societal recognition of tree genetic research that the event represented. To hear the renowned Orphei Drängar choir singing a concert in honour of a fellow plant geneticist initially struck me as incongruous – but why should it? Ron has done more for this planet than most people our society lauds. The Marcus Wallenberg Foundation is right to recognise this, and the existence of the prize in the first place underlines the social and economic importance of forests to Sweden and many other countries.
Second, the global number of Principal Investigators in tree genomics that turned out to be former graduate students of Ron. He has clearly been a fantastic mentor. As he said in his acceptance speech: “I set my graduate students off in a good direction, then got out of their way.”
Poster image: The 2017 Marcus Wallenberg Prize laureate Prof. Ronald R. Sederoff receives the diploma from the hand of His Majesty The King of Sweden. (Photo: Johan Gunséus). Ref: www.mwp.org.