USDA Lab Renamed in Honor of Nobel-Winning Researcher

USDA Lab Renamed in Honor of Nobel-Winning Researcher

ITHACA, N.Y., May 12, 2008–A U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) laboratory here will be renamed today for a renowned USDA scientist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine along with two colleagues in 1968.

The U.S. Plant, Soil and Nutrition Laboratory (PSNL), operated by USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), will be renamed The Robert W. Holley Center for Agriculture and Health during a ceremony today. ARS is USDA’s chief intramural scientific research agency.

Holley, a former ARS scientist, shared the Nobel award with Har Gobind Khorana and Marshall W. Nirenberg. Holley is the only ARS scientist to receive a Nobel Prize. From 1957 until 1964, he worked for ARS as a research chemist at the PSNL, which is located on the Cornell University campus in Ithaca. Holley died in 1993.

Holley and his research team determined the molecular structure of transfer RNA from concentrated yeast cells, marking the first time that a nucleic acid from any living organism had been sequenced. The majority of this research was conducted by Holley’s research group at the ARS laboratory.

“Dr. Holley’s findings about the genetic structure of living organisms served as a crucial foundation for studies in genetics and genomics, which are essential for our agricultural research,” said USDA Research, Education, and Economics (REE) Under Secretary Gale Buchanan. “His work helped us devise tools to search the genetic makeup of plants and animals for beneficial traits such as improved nutritional quality and disease resistance that we can use for developing improved varieties of food, feed and livestock.”

Under the supervision of Holley Center Director Leon Kochian, scientists at the ARS lab in Ithaca conduct research that builds on the discoveries of Holley and his team. These studies employ cutting-edge technologies in genomics, molecular and statistical genetics, computational biology, biochemistry and physiology.

Using these tools, ARS scientists investigate ways to improve biologically-based integrated pest management, enhance plant nutritional quality, and improve plant resistance to unfavorable environmental conditions and diseases. A new $40 million facility is being designed for the Holley Center, and will support Holley’s legacy of research excellence.

Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey from New York’s 22nd District will speak at today’s ceremony. Other speakers include USDA-REE Under Secretary Buchanan, ARS Associate Administrator Antoinette Betschart, Kochian, and Steve Kresovich, Cornell University associate provost for life sciences and director of the Institute for Genomic Diversity.


Robert W. Holley was born in Urbana, Illinois, in 1922. He received a B.A. in chemistry from the University of Illinois in 1942, and a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Cornell University in 1947. He also spent two years at Cornell University Medical College, where he participated in the first chemical synthesis of penicillin.

After two years as an American Chemical Society Postdoctoral Fellow at Washington State University, Holley returned to Cornell University as an assistant professor of organic chemistry at the Geneva Experiment Station. In 1957 Holley began as a research chemist at the USDA-Agricultural Research Service (ARS) U.S. Plant, Soil and Nutrition Laboratory on the Cornell campus. The majority of his Nobel Prize-winning research was conducted at the ARS laboratory between 1957 and 1964.

Holley rejoined the faculty of Cornell University in 1964 as professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, and was chairman of the department from 1965 to 1966. In 1966, he moved to the Salk Institute and the Scripps Clinic in La Jolla, California, and in 1968 joined the Salk Institute as a resident fellow and professor of molecular biology.

The New York Times summarized Holley’s award-winning research in his 1993 obituary:

“Dr. Holley was the first to unravel the internal structure in a strand of RNA, which helps determine what form and role each cell takes in a larger organism. Under the RNA’s direction, building blocks of proteins become flower petals, fingernails, butterfly wings and every other living thing.”

“The specific substance he analyzed was alanine transfer RNA, painstakingly derived from yeast. It took three years to isolate a 30th of an ounce of the material from 200 pounds of yeast and another four years to decipher the exact sequence of key ingredients in its 77 subunits. His findings were reported in a two-sentence abstract in a scientific journal in 1965: “The complete nucleotide sequence of an alanine transfer RNA, isolated from yeast, has been determined. This is the first nucleic acid for which the structure is known.”

“The discovery was soon hailed as a breakthrough in understanding the basic chemistry of life.”

In 1968, Holley received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his research–the only ARS scientist to receive a Nobel Prize. He also received several other honors in his career, including the Albert Lasker Award in Basic Medical Research, the USDA Distinguished Service Award, and the National Academy of Sciences U.S. Steel Foundation Award.

Holley died in Los Gatos, California, on February 11, 1993.
Posted 5.12.08


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