Growings On: Georgia geneticist awarded for lifetime contributions

Roger Gates

Scientists from across the United States and Canada gathered recently for the National Association of Plant Breeders annual meeting. Hosted by University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES), the meeting was Aug. 25-29 at the Callaway Gardens conference center in Pine Mountain. Presentations and exchanges focused on the latest advances in breeding sustainable and efficient crops to keep up with the needs of a growing world.

In introductory comments to the assembled students and scientists, CAES Dean Sam Pardue said, “When I was born in 1955, there were 3 billion people on the planet; if I live to be 95, I will have seen a tripling of the population of this planet, so, the things that you do here matter. It has a huge impact on all our lives.”

During the meeting, Georgia geneticist and plant breeder Dr. Wayne Hanna received the Lifetime Achievement Award celebrating distinguished, longterm service to the plant breeding discipline through research, teaching, outreach and leadership. Hanna is recognized internationally for his work on grasses and grain crops, particularly turfgrasses and pearl millet. A colleague commented: “He is a plant breeder through and through, his mind and efforts are always racing to create new cultivars to solve problems for the betterment of us all.”

Hanna grew up on a farm in south central Texas, and received bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees from Texas A&M University. After a brief white clover breeding position at the University of Florida, he worked from 1971-2002 for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service at Tifton. During his tenure, Hanna was research geneticist, research leader and location leader, collaborating closely with colleagues at the University of Georgia.

In addition to his highly successful cultivar development efforts, he conducted seminal and groundbreaking research on the reproductive process of apomixis (asexual reproduction through seeds) in relatives of pearl millet and their hybrids. His research included cytogenetics, genetics, and breeding of forage grasses and turfgrasses.

Since 2003, Hanna has worked part time with the University of Georgia on a wide range of crops, including turfgrasses, seed sterile ornamental grasses, cold tolerant citrus and cone-less pine trees. From 2007 through 2015, he also worked part time for the Whitetail Institute in Alabama developing white clover cultivars

Hanna’s research has led to development and release of 31 cultivars and 35 parental lines, inbreds and improved germplasms of turf, ornamental and forage genera, with 27 plant patents and four plant patents in final review. His cultivars are used nationally and internationally for summer grazing and on athletic fields (including the World Cup and Olympics), golf courses and for landscaping.

“Rigorous testing has been a hallmark of Dr. Hanna’s program,” highlights a colleague, “and thus the reason the program has gained such respect from other breeders as well as the industry.”

A seed industry stakeholder pointed out: “Dr. Hanna's primary concerns about new varieties have always been focused on serving needs in the industry, be it golf, sport fields or home lawns and then securing an abundance of performance data before releasing a new variety. I have had many discussions with him over the years, as we looked at seemingly attractive selections in his breeding plots that he would insist that needed further testing. This approach has ultimately resulted in his stellar record of winning releases.”

Hanna is author or co-author of 670 scientific papers, has directed the research of 10 graduate students and 18 visiting scientists and post-docs, and has collaborated with more than 150 national and international scientists.

Beyond his professional accomplishments, a colleague about Wayne Hanna’s personal integrity and commitment: “He and his wife, Mrs. Barbara, have been serving the community of Tifton through church and on their own since the early 1970s. He is one of the most unselfish people I have ever met and has a heart as large as they come. He has built churches, taken in strangers and cared for people when no one else would. He loves his family like none other and has made many sacrifices for them.”

Few plant breeders are recognized by a sign along an interstate highway. However, a billboard on I-75 leading into Tifton advertises the city as the "Turf Grass Capital of the World" — a testimony to both the success and impact of Hanna's research.

Roger Gates is the agricultural and natural resources agent for University of Georgia Extension, Whitfield County. Contact him at

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