Plant scientist honored with Clemson

A plant does not live an easy life. Unlike animals, plants cannot move when conditions are stressful. Hong Luo helps plants cope.

Luo’s research to genetically adapt plants to deal with drought and salt levels in soils has earned the molecular biologist Clemson University’s highest agricultural research honor.

Luo is the 2013 recipient of the Godley-Snell Award for Excellence in Agricultural Research awarded by the Clemson University Experiment Station to recognize outstanding contributions to science and public service supporting South Carolina citizens and economic development.

George Askew, Experiment Station director and associate vice president for public service and agriculture, presented the award to Luo, the 27th recipient, at the year-end faculty meeting.

“The purpose of the Godley Snell Award is to recognize and reward a researcher whose work has a significant impact on agriculture and people’s lives and livelihoods,” said Askew. “Climate studies raise concerns about drought and water quality affecting agriculture and living conditions. Dr. Luo is an outstanding scientist whose research on plants, particularly turfgrass, will help South Carolina respond to the challenges.”

Drought and salinity in soil are two pressing concerns. It is vital that scientists identify plant genes and their functions in response to adverse environmental conditions. Perennial grasses are essential components of agriculture and the environment, among which turfgrass, forages and biofuel plants play increasingly important roles, according Luo.

“Understanding the basic mechanisms through which plants respond to stresses will provide valuable insights to develop molecular strategies to enhance tolerance to drought and salinity,” noted William Marcotte, chairman of the genetics and biochemistry department, in his letter nominating Luo.

Much of Luo’s research focuses on key plant species that are economically important to South Carolina and the Southeast. Turfgrass is a multimillion dollar a year industry in South Carolina, which Clemson supports through research and Extension Service programs. Luo’s work also helps the golf industry, a major contributor to the state’s travel and tourism industry.

“Golf supports the vitality of our economy, and the future health of this industry has a direct effect on commerce, jobs and economic development in South Carolina,” S.C. Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt in his weekly newsletter. The industry’s economic impact in the state is more than $1.7 billion and 35,000 jobs.

Luo came to Clemson in 2006 and has been a productive faculty member, according to colleagues who nominated and endorsed him for the prize. He has been awarded more than $2.5 million in competitive grant funding.

“I admire his ability to immediately target novel molecular tools and use them for crop improvement…, ” wrote recently retired professor Halina Knap, endorsing Luo. “His expertise and novel research have been recognized by grant-funding agencies and numerous journals.”

The results of Luo’s research have been published in high-impact, peer-reviewed science journals and books, tallying more than 22 articles and eight book chapters. Luo is a sought-after presenter at conferences, having made 30 presentations as invited speaker at academic, industry and international meetings.

Luo holds two patents and has six more in the pipeline.

“The fact that he holds two patents and has others pending indicates the utility of his research, thus benefiting the citizens of South Carolina as well as the nation and the world,” wrote professor Emerson Shipe in support of Luo’s award nomination.

While Luo holds a research faculty post, he works generously with students.

“Dr. Luo has mentored nine graduate students, and I can personally attest to the rigor of his expectations for his students’ work and to the rigor of their training,” Marcotte wrote.

Luo’s graduate students and postdoctoral scientists have been awarded several fellowships and awards. He serves on 20 graduate advisory committees and mentors three visiting scholars and two postdoctoral researchers in his lab. He also has mentored 30 undergraduate-directed research projects.

“I consider professor Luo to be one of the best and most productive plant scientists in research at Clemson University,” wrote Haibo Liu, a colleague on the university turfgrass research team. “He has made a tremendous contribution through his research, publications, grants and academic relationships with faculty and students. He represents the best in science and academia.”

The Godley-Snell Award for Excellence in Agricultural Research is named in honor of the late W. Cecil Godley, former director of the S.C. Agricultural Experiment Station, and Absalom W. Snell, former associate director. It is the largest annual agricultural research award given at the university and is allocated from earnings of a fund that was established in 1986 upon Godley’s retirement and increased in 1988 when Snell retired. The purpose of the fund is to stimulate excellence in agricultural research by making a personal award to faculty members involved in research through the Clemson Experiment Station.

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