“I’m not averse to having a cigarette or cigar now and then,” says North Carolina State University’s Charles Opperman — not exactly a glowing endorsement for someone who just received $17.6 million from Philip Morris. But that’s not why he’s heading up the Tobacco Genome Initiative, funded by the cigarette maker. “I work with tobacco because it’s a good host for nematodes,” Opperman says.
The parasitic worm expert will spend the next four-and-a-half years tackling the Hicks variety of tobacco, a strain highly susceptible to several diseases. “We’re not going to sequence the entire genome,” says Opperman, 45. “It’s one-and-a-half times the size of the human.” Instead, his lab will map the entire genome, and then “try to sequence as many genes as we can.”
A native of New York City, “I had no agricultural background,” Opperman says. “I’d been on a horse a few times, but I don’t think that really counts, does it?” He discovered a soft spot for protecting crops from nematode freeloaders as a student at the University of Florida.
“It was purely an accident,” he says. “I was working in a cancer lab as an undergraduate and I needed a summer course to keep my job, and the only one I could get into was introduction to plant nematology,” he says. “I liked agriculture so much I immediately switched my degree to agronomy.” He went on to earn a PhD in nematology in 1985 with minors in plant breeding and plant pathology, followed by a two-year stint at Union Carbide Agricultural Products, before joining NCSU’s department of plant pathology.
“Hell, these things happen,” he says. “You can’t always predict where you end up.”
— Aaron J. Sender