Faculty Highlights: Steve Kresovich

Vice Provost for Life Sciences -- Provost's Office

In his Plant Breeding 404 Crop Evolution class, Cornell plant geneticist Steve Kresovich plays the "F" game: "Look at everything plants provide us: food, feed, fiber, fuel, chemical feedstocks, fragrances and pharmaceuticals," he says.

Photo of Faculty Highlights: Steve Kresovich

Faculty Highlights: Steve Kresovich

To which one more must be added: function.

All of which is aimed at advancing human well-being, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, among the world's most impoverished regions. "What I want to do is understand molecular and population genetics as these disciplines can be applied to effective conservation and use of crops," says Kresovich, Cornell's vice provost for life sciences and a professor of plant breeding and plant biology.

He applies marker-based analyses to understand selection and breeding of grain sorghum and pearl millet, the most important food staples for millions of sub-Saharan Africans.

"It's important to know what is maintained in collections, whether it's in a plant gene bank like the repository in Geneva or in breeders' programs around the world. And then it's critical to establish what is unique in nature so that we can focus to discover new traits. It's an iterative process where we're comparing what is available to breeders and geneticists as contrasted with what is inaccessible," Kresovich says.

He believes that preserving native landraces -- cultivars untouched by modern agriculture -- in their centers of origin for future study and use is essential. "Maybe we won't utilize them immediately, but as the science advances we ultimately will," he says. "At present, the biggest problems are finding and collecting germplasm."

Nevertheless, Kresovich is undeterred, working in Mali, Nigeria and Ghana with hopes of fostering closer collaborations with plant breeders in Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, Sudan and Ethiopia to look for traits that improve yield, nutritional quality, disease resistance and a plant's ability to survive drought.

Kresovich and his team at Cornell's Institute for Genomic Diversity (IGD), which he directs, are compiling genetic maps and databases, making resources available through a centralized Web site, helping train scientists in Africa and developing a longer-term plan for the development of further genetic and genomic resources to improve grain sorghum and pearl millet.

Kresovich earned a Ph.D. in physiology and genetics from Ohio State University in 1982 and then worked as a supervisory geneticist for U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service Plant Genetics Resources units in Geneva, N.Y., and in Griffin, Ga. He joined the Cornell faculty in 1998 and established the IGD that same year. At any one time, there are more than 20 people in his lab, from Ph.D. students to postdoctoral candidates to visiting scientists and technicians.

But Kresovich has a lot of other priorities, too. In addition to overseeing an active research program in plant breeding in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and directing IGD, he heads up the university's New Life Sciences Initiative and is helping oversee construction of the $158 million Life Sciences Technology Building.

To balance it all, he says he is "obsessively compulsive" about shooting hoops and running stadium steps. "It's the best way I know to keep my mind clear and priorities straight," says Kresovich. His well-worn sneakers sit ever ready by his office door. He grins, "Some of my colleagues will tell you it doesn't always work.