Dr. Robert Trigiano is an Institute Professor, Ornamental Plant Biotechnology, and Plant Pathology, in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture (UTIA).His primary research interests are in molecular genetics; population analyses of native plants; and diseases, biotechnology, and breeding of ornamental crops. Dr. Trigiano received his master’s in biology (botany/mycology) from The Pennsylvania State University and his Ph.D. with a dual major plant pathology and botany from North Carolina State University. He joined the University of Tennessee (UT) in 1984 as a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Plant and Soil Science.
A significant research focus for Dr. Trigiano is the study of pathogens of plants. One plant of particular interest to him is the flowering dogwood tree. In the late 1980s to mid-1990s, two fungal diseases, dogwood anthracnose, and powdery mildew were beginning to infect and decimate the dogwoods raised and sold by Tennessee nurseries. The resulting costs to control these diseases were crippling the nursery industry and forcing smaller nurseries out of business. Along with several of his UTIA colleagues, Dr. Trigiano developed several cultivars of disease-resistant dogwood trees that could be produced and sold by wholesale growers. One of their dogwood cultivars, known as Appalachian Spring, is still the single cultivar scientifically proven to be tolerant to dogwood anthracnose as well as resistant to powdery mildew. To market their dogwoods to the nursery industry, Dr. Trigiano and his fellow UTIA researchers founded Creative Agricultural Technologies, LLC (CAT) in 2005. A University of Tennessee Research Foundation (UTRF) startup, CAT licenses dogwood cultivars to growers in Tennessee, North Carolina, Oregon, and Japan.
In addition to his research on disease-resistant dogwood trees, Dr. Trigiano is working to identify new ways to propagate and breed endangered plants in an effort to both conserve and commercialize them. His work includes determining what the plant needs to grow and reproduce in a nursery setting; selecting beneficial traits and developing molecular markers for breeding. Dr. Trigiano is currently interested in two plants: Ruth’s golden aster is only found in two Tennessee river systems, and the other is the whorled sunflower found only in two locations in Tennessee and Georgia.
Dr. Trigiano is also exploring the origin of Chinese dogwood trees and how they spread across Asia, as well as studying the different varieties of dandelions found in North America to identify unique or unusual properties. He also works with an investigator in Ghana to define the population characteristics of a medicinal plant that holds antimalarial properties. Outside the lab, Dr. Trigiano frequently travels to China and Germany to teach at universities and to do scientific writing editing for several clients. He is Editor-in-Chief of Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences, one of the top 10 plant journals in the world, and has authored/edited 11 books. In 2015, he was named Institute Professor, a title given annually to a UTIA Professor in recognition of high and continuing achievement in teaching, research and service.
Dr. Trigiano enjoys his work at UTIA and the satisfaction he gets from solving some of the pressing challenges he encounters in his mission-oriented research. He is also appreciative of the support he receives from UTRF and UT, especially their promotion and support of entrepreneurship and startup activities.
“UTRF has been a tremendous help when it comes to patenting and licensing procedures, and UT provides a welcoming atmosphere for researchers and inventors alike,” adds Dr. Trigiano.