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Endowment Fellowship Fuels Plant Breeding Research

November 27, 2011
  • James Brewbaker

Veteran University of Hawai'i at Mānoa plant breeder and corn expert Dr. James Brewbaker has established an endowed fellowship with outright and estate gifts totaling $1 million. The James L. Brewbaker endowed fellowship will assist full-time graduate students who are studying plant breeding in the Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences at the UH Mānoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR).

"Since the dawn of agriculture, humans have crossed plant varieties to obtain desirable traits and improve the quality and quantity of harvest. Few have done it as successfully as Dr. Brewbaker," said Dr. Maria Gallo, CTAHR dean and director. "During a career spanning seven decades, he has made remarkable contributions to agriculture in Hawai'i and around the world through his own research and through the work of the dozens of agronomists and foresters he has trained. In establishing a fellowship program to support future graduate students, he ensures that his legacy will continue for generations to come."

A second-generation plant breeder, Dr. Jim Brewbaker grew up learning about sugarbeet breeding from his father. He completed his Ph.D. in 1952 with Sandy Atwood on clover genetics in Cornell's Department of Plant Breeding and Biometry. He then completed his post-doctoral work in Sweden and the Philippines, and worked for the US Atomic Energy Commission before joining the UH faculty. In 1961 he joined CTAHR at the invitation of Horticulture Department chair and vegetable breeder Jim Gilbert.

At CTAHR, he created Hawai'i Foundation Seeds that manages collections of parent seed stocks - overseeing their collection, evaluation, purification, and propagation and providing seed samples and education to the community. Dr. Brewbaker was also instrumental in founding the Hawai'i Crop Improvement Association (HCIA), following his corn research in the 1960's. Hawai'i's climate lends itself to year-round seed propagation, improvement and development. Today the seed industry is valued at one-third of the entire agriculture industry of Hawai'i and generates nearly $250 million annually and growing.

In recognition of his trailblazing work, he has won numerous awards, including the recent Crop Science Society of America (CSSA) Presidential Award, and accolades for his work from every major plant breeding organization. A prolific writer, he is currently working on his 287th publication.

"Liberty Hyde Bailey, with great foresight, established Cornell's Dept. of Plant Breeding more than a century ago, in 1907. Graduating there in 1952, I've had the extraordinary pleasure of breeding plants ever since. I've seen it contribute immensely to the health of people and the world's environment. But the two billion people this world held when I was born in '26 have sadly grown to more than seven billion, of whom one billion go to bed hungry," said Dr. James Brewbaker. He continued, "My gift simply underscores my faith that plant breeding can, and indeed will have to contribute even more than it has in the past. No better place than University of Hawai'i."

Brewbaker expresses the opinion that plant breeding will be even more important in the century to come than it has since the discovery a century ago of Mendel's research. This will be founded on the kind of genetic modification he and colleagues do, using available genes in related plants. However, it will increasingly involve "transgenes" borrowed from one species for another, as the recent breeding of a yellow, high-Vitamin A, rice by adding gene Y from yellow corn. He is convinced that the tropical setting and global perspective of University of Hawai'i will be at the center of such research and teaching, to which end his gift can hopefully contribute.

After 52 years at UH Mānoa, Dr. Brewbaker is still very involved in plant breeding. He plants and harvests almost weekly while keeping copious notes.

UH Mānoa Chancellor Tom Apple concluded, "Gifts from our faculty are especially meaningful and we are most grateful to Dr. Brewbaker for building on his impressive educational legacy with his very generous gifts. Through this endowed fellowship, his lifelong dedication to studying plant breeding will live on through the work of our future researchers."

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