Richard Michelmore

(Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

The Academic Senate Committee on Public Service has recognized Richard Michelmore, member of the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat advisory council and director of the UC Davis Genome Center, for his outstanding contributions and commitment to public service with the 2020-21 Distinguished Scholarly Public Service Award.

In a year of great uncertainty, Michelmore demonstrated exceptional vision, leadership, and scholarly excellence by spearheading the development of methods for the universal testing of the SARS-Cov-2 virus at the Genome Center on the UC Davis campus.

Michelmore, distinguished professor in the Departments of Plant Sciences, Molecular and Cellular Biology and Medical Microbiology & Immunology and an experienced plant geneticist, realized that PCR machines developed by the agricultural biotechnology industry to genotype plants could be repurposed as highly efficient and cost-effective testing equipment for the COVID-19 virus. Between July and September 2020, he, along with a team of researchers and staff at the Genome Center and Student Health and Counseling Services, developed, tested, and deployed the high-throughput testing technology, which is based on raw saliva samples.

This innovative saliva-based testing program that involved many on campus, along with the contact tracing protocols and quarantine facilities for positive cases, enabled UC Davis to maintain a positivity rate of about 0.3% at a time when the rate for the surrounding county was in the double digits and many other universities were forced to close down. It also facilitated the partnership between UC Davis and the City of Davis to create the Healthy Davis Together program, which extends universal testing to the entire Davis community – from students, employees, and residents – and has received national attention.

“The testing and analysis of variants is a logical extension of my long-standing interest in plant disease pandemics, such as the wheat rusts,” Michelmore told the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative. “Diagnostics will never be the same again; hopefully, some of the new technologies and excess testing capacity after the end of the COVID pandemic can be applied to plant pathogens.”

Beyond the insight and tenacity he showcased in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Michelmore has turned the UC Davis Genome Center, of which he is both the founding and current director, into a world-class research center. He has achieved this through recruitment of distinguished biologists, the establishment of core service facilities that provide cutting-edge technologies to over 200 campus labs and his own pioneering research.

A version of this article originally appeared on the UC Davis Plant Sciences’ website.

Matt Marcure
Written by:

Matt Marcure

Communication Specialist for the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis

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