Hei Leung was born November 5, 1955, in China. He received a B.S. degree in plant science from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, in 1979. He then completed M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in plant pathology at the University of Wisconsin. After completing doctoral studies in 1984, he was awarded a McKnight Postdoctoral Fellowship to work at the University of California, Davis. He has always had a keen interest in international agriculture, and this prompted him to join the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines in 1986 to begin a distinguished career in rice pathology research. In 1989, he joined the faculty of plant pathology at Washington State University, where he focused on the genetics of the rice blast fungus, Magnaporthe grisea. In 1997, he returned to IRRI as a plant pathologist to continue working toward applying molecular biology for solving rice disease problems in developing countries. He also serves as an adjunct professor of plant pathology at Kansas State University.
Dr. Leung is recognized for significant research contributions to many areas of rice–pathogen interactions, including genetic analysis of pathogenicity in the rice blast pathogen, M. grisea, the application of pathogen population biology to disease control, and the dissection of qualitative and quantitative disease resistance in rice. He also is recognized for his leadership in the international community toward building and distributing rice genetic and genomic resources and creating capacity in plant pathology in the developing countries of Asia.
During his career, Dr. Leung has made several key contributions to initiate development of the rice blast pathogen as a tractable genetic system, leading to its eventual establishment as a model system. Dr. Leung studied meiosis and ascosporogenesis in the fungus, determined the pathogen’s chromosome number, and conducted the first successful crosses in M. grisea. In addition, he developed a mapping population and contributed to the development of the first genetic map of the fungal genome. His laboratory conducted some of the first transformation experiments on the fungus and developed an insertional mutagenesis system that was applied to the analysis of morphogenesis, pathogenesis, and sporulation in Magnaporthe.
In the mid-1980s, Dr. Leung urged the rice pathology community to develop sustainable control strategies based on principles of population ecology and host–pathogen coevolution. With his collaborators, he developed extensive, systematically designed collections of the rice blast and bacterial blight pathogens, developed molecular marker tools, and applied a series of analytical techniques to understand their population structures and the population genetic process that drive their evolution. The emphasis on knowledge of population biology coupled with an understanding of the evolution of pathogen virulence and avirulence factors represents a fundamental advance for breeding for durable disease resistance. Dr. Leung was active in outreach and training efforts to bring molecular analyses of plant pathogen interactions and population genetic analysis to several national research programs in Asia.
Dr. Leung initiated broad research partnerships to assess the utility of a candidate gene approach for achieving durable resistance with quantitative trait loci (QTL). Dr. Leung and colleagues demonstrated that genes predicted to contribute to a defense response (DR) are associated with QTL for rice pathogens and pests. To assess the utility of candidate DR genes for plant breeding to improve resistance, his laboratory demonstrated that these genes are good predictors of QTL. Furthermore, they demonstrated that accumulation of multiple DR genes into rice cultivars could lead to increased non-race-specific field disease resistance. The expanded understanding of quantitative resistance, emerging from the synthesis of genetic analysis and functional genomics, is likely to revolutionize breeding for quantitative traits.
Dr. Leung has provided strong research leadership in the rice genomics community that will have longstanding impacts on rice as an agricultural crop. In the late 1990s, Dr. Leung realized that to maximize use of the rice genome sequence for functional genomics, several key tools would be needed. He and colleagues at IRRI initiated a program to develop and characterize collections of chemically and physically induced mutants for forward and reverse genetics. This collection, which now exceeds 40,000 lines, has led to the identification of a series of mutations affecting the disease response and other agronomic traits. This mutant resource is now widely used around the world. Dr. Leung established impressive capacity for functional genomics analysis at IRRI, including a microarray facility. Under his leadership, this capacity provides a research platform for researchers in many Asian countries and elsewhere.
Dr. Leung heads the Asian Rice Biotechnology Network (ARBN), through which he provides training and collaborative research opportunities to substantial numbers of ARBN scholars in the applications of advanced technologies to disease control. He also is the coordinator of the International Rice Functional Genomics Consortium. He has organized a large number of workshops, colloquia, and other training events. He served as an associate editor (1993–1995) and senior editor (1997–1999) for Phytopathology. He also served as liaison to the Office of International Programs of APS and was a member (1992–1994) and chair (1995) of the APS Genetics Committee. He has served on numerous peer review panels for the USDA-NRICGP. Finally, he has been an inspiring mentor for numerous graduate students and postdoctoral associates.
In summary, Dr. Leung’s contributions and achievements have spanned active research in multiple disciplines of plant pathology, breeding, genetics, and genomics. His research is characterized by tremendous scientific scope and depth that links field and laboratory studies. His promotion of collaborative research and his leadership in such programs in the developing world have contributed to the building of a dynamic research community that promotes both basic knowledge and food security for Asia and the world.