On the genetic frontier: Helping plants develop, survive and produce in extreme conditions

Jeff Harper, University’s 2018 Outstanding Researcher, contributes to advancements in plant biology through ‘extraordinary’ research

Foundation Professor Jeff Harper has contributed scientific advancements toward the worldwide challenge of food security and productivity.


5/15/2018 | By: Jane Tors |

Jeff Harper's research explores an important topic at an important time. The University's 2018 Outstanding Researcher studies how plants use genes to develop and survive under extreme environmental conditions such as drought, cold, heat and salt stress. Conducting this work in the driest state in the nation and in the face of climate change makes Harper's work all the more relevant for both Nevada and the world.

"We live here, and we see every day the limiting water situation," Harper told Nevada Silver & Blue magazine. "It's always on our minds and it's inspiring and motivating us to figure out ways we could change agricultural practices in Nevada to become more water-efficient."

Harper has made significant research contributions to two different fields of plant biology - understanding calcium signaling and ion transport. He has published more than 100 peer-reviewed papers. His work has been cited more than 11,000 times and has contributed to advancements in both agricultural productivity and food security.

"Dr. Harper has developed an extraordinary research program," his department colleagues wrote in their nomination of Harper, who is a Foundation Research Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and in the Molecular Biosciences Graduate Program, an interdisciplinary collaboration between the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources; College of Science; and University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine.

An example of current work in the Harper lab is a project to develop seed-crops with improved heat-stress tolerance. Supported by the National Science Foundation and addressing a global, food-security challenge, the research focuses on pollen. Many seed-crops including seed-corn have pollen that are hypersensitive to heat stress, leaving these plants more vulnerable to heat waves.

Harper's additional collaborations include two projects in Israel to improve heat-stress tolerances of crop plants. He also works with biotech and startup companies, including a recent venture to improve the yield of soybeans.

Professor discusses a paper report with a student in a biochemistry lab.

Highly regarded for his teaching and mentorship of students, Jeff Harper was named the CABNR Teacher of the Year in 2013.

Harper is also highly regarded as a teacher who creates lively learning environments that encourage students' curiosity and discovery. Harper was named the CABNR Teacher of the Year in 2013, after having been named the college's Researcher of the Year in 2009.

Harper's academic colleagues describe him as "an exemplary citizen of the scientific and university communities." A Fellow of the American Society for Plant Biologists and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Harper was also lauded in the nomination for his tireless efforts to build the plant-molecular-biosciences research program by attracting new researchers and assisting fellow faculty members in developing grant proposals.

"Jeff Harper is most deserving of this recognition and our appreciation," Marc Johnson, University President, said. "He has contributed scientific advancements toward the worldwide challenge of food security and productivity. Closer to home, he is a valued colleague, and is inspiring and mentoring students who will go on to follow his example and make the world a better place."

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