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Timothy Close

Professor of Genetics
Timothy Close
Creating Sustainable, Drought-Resistant Crops
For many parts of Africa, the livelihood of an entire community is closely linked to the quality of that season’s harvest. UCR Professors Timothy Close and Philip Roberts have devoted a great deal of their research efforts to improving the cowpea (also known as the black-eyed pea). As a legume, the cowpea plays a critical role in nutrition, complementing cereals like maize to provide a full amino acid balance in the diet. However, on average, the crop is only performing at twenty percent of its genetic potential. Close and Roberts are working diligently to improve this number by genetically selecting and accentuating favorable traits such as resistance to drought, pests and disease.

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  • Associate editor of the journal Genetics


Q: Why is your cowpea research important?
Proteins are needed for structure, biochemical reactions within the cells of our bodies, our immune system and neurological functions. Of the 20 amino acids that are needed to make proteins, nine are “essential” that we must have in our diet because our bodies are unable to produce them. Three of these are especially relevant in the context of legumes, which are also abundant in protein and energy-rich oils, helping make a complete diet when combined with cereals. Examples of this staple food diet combination in various civilizations are beans and corn (maize) of Central America, barley and peas in Europe, and cowpea and sorghum or millet in Africa.

Q: How does your research have global impact?
Cowpea is the most widely consumed legume in Africa, which includes many areas where people do not have access to much meat, a source of complete protein. Cowpea is the main source of protein for small holder farmers throughout the sub-Saharan Africa. We work with the leading breeders in several nations in this region, breeders who have released improved varieties that have been adopted by small holder farmers. Thus, through these partnerships, our work at UC Riverside translates into benefits for small holder farmers in Africa.

Q: What are some possible implications of your findings?
These are exciting times in biological research, as we now live in the light of the “genome era.” A paradigm shift has taken place during the past decade, wherein the dominance of model systems has given way to a new landscape in which each organism can be studied directly, its significance determined by economic and social relevance, or as part of an ecosystem. The consequences for practical applications are tremendous for food security, renewable energy, conservation, and to foster respect for human cultural diversity.

Q: What’s next for your research?
We’re beginning to use a very detailed “roadmap” of the cowpea genome. Through the support of projects from the US Agency for International Development, we recently have had the opportunity to increase the resolution of the cowpea genetic map 40-fold, from about 1,100 genetic markers to about 45,000 genetic markers. The increased density of markers will add precision to the positioning of favorable alleles on the genetic map, which will improve the accuracy of detecting favorable alleles in potential parents and then tracking them through breeding generations in progeny. This will increase the efficiency of crossing and progeny selection by our partners in Africa and here in the USA. We are at the dawn of a new era of worldwide cooperation for cowpea breeding and genetics, and it is exciting to be part of the transition that is underway.

Q: Why is UCR a great place to do research?
A combination of factors at UCR helps us translate cowpea research into practice. UCR has agricultural fields, greenhouses, growth chambers, computing resources and laboratories, which together provide a package of abilities necessary to support a plant breeding program. Riverside itself, and field stations that can be accessed by car from UCR, have climates that are relevant to areas of California and sub-Saharan Africa where cowpea is grown. UCR attracts a strong pool of undergraduate and graduate students, post-doctoral scientists and visiting scientists from the U.S. and internationally. Also, easy travel by air from nearby ONT or LAX helps us attend important conferences and visit partners in distant places.

Q: What does “Living the Promise” mean to you?
A University promises that its activities are relevant to society, and that a student who becomes part of the University will, through their coursework and other experiences, become more aware of the world and more able to find purpose and contribute to society. I am a professor in the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences and a Geneticist in the Agricultural Experiment Station. I joined the faculty at UCR in 1990. I feel very lucky to have been at UCR during a revolutionary time for plant genetic research. I am lucky to have been among the shepherds of the genome era for several major food plants during the past decade, none more significantly than cowpea, which is so vital to world food security. As a youngster growing up in a suburban blue-collar family, and then a first-generation college student, I never imagined that my career could follow the path that it has. When I see many of today’s UCR students, I see myself 40 years ago, and I see my own two kids searching for their purpose, and I find motivation in that feeling of familiarity. I attempt to convey excitement and sense of duty and opportunity in my research, public service and teaching. This is my perspective on “Living the Promise”—a perspective shaped by my identity as a former University student, as a University Faculty member for 24+ years, and as a parent.

Q: What movies, documentaries or TV programs have you recently found interesting and/or inspiring?
When my kids were younger I found “The Sandlot” to be most inspiring—a fun movie about neighborhood kids playing baseball, but with all kinds of messages about doing the right thing. Their purpose was to succeed as a team. More recently I enjoyed the storyline in “The 300,” with a message about the power of honesty and loyalty to ideals, in this case to a democratic society. I like stories about people defying the odds.

Q: Do you have a favorite quote, book, or poem?
One of my favorite quotes is from Satchel Paige, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” It’s much like the biblical message of “Be steadfast and go forward”, but from a more modern voice, a man who overcame the odds in his own life as a baseball player.

Timothy Close “We’re bringing modern-day technologies into age-old practices of humans”

—Timothy Close
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