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Feb. 14, 2008

Ray Wu, Cornell's acclaimed pioneer of genetic engineering and developer of widely grown, hardy rice, dies at 79

Blaine P. Friedlander Jr.

Ray J. Wu, Cornell professor of molecular biology and genetics, who was widely recognized as one of the fathers of plant genetic engineering, from which sprang the development of widely grown rice plants resistant to pests, drought and salt, died at Cayuga Medical Center in Ithaca Feb. 10. He was 79.

The cause of death was cardiac arrest.

In 1970 Wu developed the first method for sequencing DNA and some of the fundamental tools for DNA cloning (sequencing involves determining the base sequence in a DNA molecule). After several innovative modifications by other scientists to greatly speed up the process, the same strategy is still being used today, and led to the DNA sequence determination of the entire genomes of rice and human, among other organisms -- helping scientists to understand different genetic traits.

Born in China and educated in the United States, Wu was a scientific adviser to the governments of both China and Taiwan. As such he exerted great influence on U.S.-Chinese cooperation in biological science and education.

At Cornell, in 1999 he committed to a gift of $500,000 to establish the Ray Wu Graduate Fellowship in Molecular Biology and Genetics to support a first-year graduate student. He funded the gift over the next five years to create a permanent endowment to support one graduate student each year in the field of molecular biology and genetics.

Following his pioneering work in the 1980s on the development of efficient transformation systems for rice, Wu and his group genetically engineered rice plants resistant to pests, drought and salt. A gene from the potato, called proteinase inhibitor II (or PIN-II), caused the rice plants to produce a protein that interferes with the digestive proceof the pink stem borer, causing the insect to eat less, thus reducing plant damage. In a second study, a barley gene enabled rice plants to produce a protein that makes them salt- and drought-resistant so that they grow in saline conditions and recover quickly from dry conditions.

A third study increased drought, salt and temperature stretolerance by introducing the bacterial gene for trehalose (sugar) synthesis into widely planted rice varieties. Wu and his colleagues said the strategy could enhance stretolerance for other crops, including corn, wheat, millet, soybeans and sugar cane.

Wu joined the Cornell faculty in 1966, as an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, became a professor in 1972, and in 2004 was named a Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor Molecular Biology and Genetics. He served as department chair (1976-1978) in Cornells Section of Biochemistry, Molecular and Cell Biology. Prior to joining the Cornell faculty, he was a Damon Runyon Postdoctoral Fellow, working under Efraim Racker, at the Public Health Research Institute of the City of New York. He has also worked at Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania. He was a National Science Foundation Senior Fellow at the Medical Research Council Laboratory in Cambridge, England, and a visiting associate professor in the Department of Biology and Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

While on sabbatical leave from Cornell in 1989, Wu was director of the Institute of Molecular Biology of Academia Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan. He also served as an honorary professor and later as an adjunct professor at Peking University.

Wu founded the China-United States Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Examination and Application program, which from 1982 to 1989, brought over 400 of the top Chinese students to the U.S. for graduate training, and produced more than 100 faculty members in major universities or key members in industry. These scientists, with colleagues from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, formed the Ray Wu Society to promote life sciences frontiers.

Among other advisory roles to both the Chinese and Taiwanese governments, Wu was instrumental in establishing the Institute of Molecular Biology, the Institute of Bioagricultural Sciences of Academia Sinica in Taiwan, and the National Institute of Biological Sciences in Beijing, and he held several honorary professorships at Chinese universities and research institutes.

Wu was elected a fellow of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science in 2003; and elected a fellow in the Chinese Academy of Engineering. He was given the prestigious Frank Annunzio Award in Science and Technology in 2002, which is presented by the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation.

Between 1982 and 1995 he served as scientific adviser to the China National Center for Biotechnology Development; chairman, Scientific Advisory Committee of the Institute of BioAgricultural Sciences, Taiwan; chairman, Advisory Committee to the Transgenic Plant Program, National Science Council, Taiwan, and chairman, Board of Scientific Advisers of the International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology.


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