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Thea Wilkins wins 2006 award for cotton biotechnology work

Thea A. Wilkins, Bayer Crop Science Regents Professor at Texas Tech University, is the recipient of the 2006 Cotton Biotechnology Award. The announcement was made during the Cotton Improvement Conference of the National Cotton Council-coordinated 2007 Beltwide Cotton Conferences.

Wilkins, who received $2,000 in recognition of her efforts, is director of the TTU Center of Excellence in Agricultural Genomics and Biotechnology. She was the first to discover the signal for vacuolar sorting and that effort has remained a research standard for over 15 years.

Her other efforts include the development of the standard method for RNA isolation in cotton and identification of candidate genes with critical roles in fiber elongation. Her pioneering work with cotton transformation, where specific genes are placed into cotton, has resulted in two issued and two pending patents.

James McD. Stewart, Altheimer Chair for Cotton Research at the University of Arkansas, detailed several notable contributions of Wilkins.

“She was the first to identify and characterize the cotton fiber transcriptome (the process of cotton fiber's development inside the boll); she developed a comprehensive genetic map of cotton and launched the first phase of the physical map; and she identified candidate genes in fiber elongation.

“Her contributions to cotton biotechnology research have been and continue to be groundbreaking. They have laid the foundation upon which current work and progress in cotton biotechnology is based,” Stewart said.

Another nominator, Eric Hequet, associate director at the TTU International Textile Center, said, Wilkins' efforts “have begun to unravel the molecular basis of fiber quality.

“Her efforts to map genetic mutants (which have lead to a clearer understanding of how cotton fiber develops), to formulate a related developmental model, and advance developing cotton fibers as a single-celled genomics platform has provided the link between the genotype (the genetic makeup of cotton) and phenotype (what cotton can potentially look like in the field) in cotton.

“She is among the elite researchers in the field of cotton fiber research”.

In addition to her biotechnology efforts, Wilkins has integrated research activities into formal classroom training in genetics and genomics.

She hosted training workshops and was an active participant in the University of California at Davis Partnership in Genomics Education Program and the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Young Scholars Program.

Since moving to TTU, she has been developing new curricula for graduate and undergraduate majors in genomics and bioinformatics. Wilkins also has two adjunct professorships at the Chinese Cotton Research Institute in Anyang City, China, and at Alabama A&M University.

Prior to joining TTU in 2006 Wilkins rose through the ranks at the University of California at Davis to become professor and director of the NSF Cotton Genome Center. She was also director of the UCD Cotton Functional Genomics Center beginning in 2002.

The Cotton Biotechnology Award, endowed by a gift from Norma Trolinder in 2000, has been presented to two previous researchers. It is given to a scientist for outstanding biotechnology research in cotton. The award committee is comprised of previous recipients and a representative from USDA, a private seed company, and a biotechnology company. The award winner was selected by this group in consultation with Trolinder.

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