Three WUSTL biologists earn national honors

Ho, Quatrano and graduate student Galant recognized by American Society of Plant Biologists

Three Washington University in St. Louis scientists were honored this year by the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB), two for sustained achievement in their careers, and the third for a promising beginning.

Tuan-hua David Ho, PhD, professor of biology in Arts & Sciences, was elected president of the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB) for 2009-10. The ASPB, with 5,000 members, is one of the largest and most influential plant biology societies in the world.

Founded in 1924, its mission is to encourage and publish research in plant biology and to promote the interests of plant scientists. The ASPB publishes the highly cited and respected journals Plant Physiology and The Plant Cell.

Ralph S. Quatrano, PhD, the Spencer T. Olin Professor of Biology in Arts & Sciences and dean designate of the School of Engineering & Applied Science, won the Adolph E. Gude, Jr. Award, given every third year for outstanding service to the science of plant biology.

Ashley Galant, a graduate student in the lab of Joseph M. Jez, PhD, assistant professor of biology in Arts & Sciences, was awarded the Pioneer Hi-Bred graduate student fellowship. The fellowship recognizes innovative graduate research in areas of plant biology that relate to important commodity crops.

Assuming the presidency

Ho’s research concentrates on the hormonal regulation of seed germination, on plant responses to environmental stresses, and on the use of plants for biofuel.

In the late 1980s, Ho and Quatrano helped discover genes called late embryogenesis abundant (LEA) genes that are expressed near the end of seed development, a time when plant tissue must be highly resistant to stresses such as dessication.

In the early 1990s, Ho discovered a LEA gene, originally isolated from a barley plant under stress, that when inserted into the genomes of wheat and rice increased their tolerance of drought or salinity. This discovery refuted the long-held notion that something as broad as stress tolerance must be controlled by dozens of different genes and never could be “engineered” into a plant.

Ho continues to study proteins that are expressed when plants are stressed, but his group also has embarked on a project to find enzymes that can help digest the tough lignocellulose in plant materials such as corn stover and wood chips so that the cellulose can be more easily converted into biofuel.

In his role as president, Ho plans to promote the role of the society in the international arena and as a bridge between academic and industrial interests.

“It has never been more important to emphasize the importance of plant biology in meeting the challenges of food security, human nutrition, alternative energy and climate change we currently face,” Ho says.

A lifetime of service

Quatrano’s award recognizes both his research and his service to the plant biology community.

His research interests include the means by which seeds establish polarity, so that the roots grown down and the shoots grow even if the seed is upside down in the soil, and the molecular mechanisms that underlie plant responses to environmental stress.

Quatrano recently was in the news for the discovery that the genes responsible for desiccation tolerance in the seeds of flowering plants also are present in the vegetative tissue of some mosses. Their carefully timed expression gives the mosses the seed-like ability to survive total desiccation, an ability flowering plants have lost.

Over the course of his career, Quatrano has played an important role in repositioning plant biology as a key science for the future. He was a member of the original editorial board of The Plant Cell and served as its chief editor from 1998-2003.

He was the ASPB president in 1992-93 and, during that time, created an office of public affairs to promote the visibility and funding of plant science. Quatrano then served as the first chair of the public affairs committee, testifying regularly before Congress on behalf of plant biology.

His nomination for the award makes particular mention of Quatrano’s support for young plant scientists around the globe, encouragement that “has benefited the entire plant biology community as well as the young scientists themselves.”

A rising star

Galant’s research continues the WUSTL tradition of research in plant stress responses, but with a newfound urgency.

The goal of her research is to design soybean plants that are better able to withstand high ozone concentrations. Ozone, an air pollutant, has harmful effects on both plants and animals.

“The U.S. is the world’s largest harvester of soybeans,” Galant says, “and the annual value of our crop is higher than the budget expenditures of most of the world’s countries. From an environmentalist’s perspective, the reliance on soybeans is a recipe for disaster.

“Soybeans, like many other crop plants, are extremely sensitive to atmospheric ozone concentrations,” she says. “A one percent increase in ozone concentrations results in a one percent decrease in soybean seed yield. To make matters worse, according to some predictions, atmospheric ozone concentrations, already quite high, may double in the next 100 years.

“The hope,” she says, “is that we will be able to design soybean plants that can withstand high ozone concentrations without sacrificing yield.

“Most aspiring scientists want to work on issues associated with human disease and development,” she says, “because it’s much easier to relate to a sick human that to a sick plant. But ultimately, all the advancements in medical science will mean very little if we have nothing left to eat.”

The awards will be presented at a ceremony at the ASPB meeting in July in Montréal, Canada.

The WUSTL biology tradition

The three plant biologists join a tradition of achievement in plant biology at Washington University that goes back to the university’s founding.

In 1879, Sylvester Waterhouse, a WUSTL professor of Greek more notable for his loyalty to the university than for his tact, wrote to Henry Shaw, the hardware merchant who founded the Missouri Botanical Garden, to suggest that he endow a professorship of botany and place the Botanical Gardens under the supervision of the university.

Soybeans growing in a field.

Shaw declined, replying somewhat tartly that he would give “serious consideration” to endowing botanical studies at Washington University, but “without the encumbrance of the Garden.”

It was an unpromising beginning for what was to become a highly successful partnership. After consulting with Asa Gray, world-famous botanist and friend of Charles Darwin, Shaw eventually endowed a school of botany and a named professorship.

At the time, the idea that universities should be centers of advanced research as well as of education was just making its way to the United States from Germany. Again at Gray’s insistence, Shaw made the then-unusual stipulation that the School of Botany be dedicated to research.

The first occupant of the named chair, William Trelease, PhD, was an active researcher with a commitment to graduate training. At first, the Shaw School of Botany was the only school at the university with such a research mission. And for many years, Trelease was one of the few faculty members who held an earned doctorate.

In 1895, the university awarded the first earned doctorate to a student of botany — a woman. During the next 20 years, 19 of the 21 research doctorates conferred by the university were earned in botany.