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20 Years of Plant and Microbial Biology

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In the summer of 1989, the long process of reorganizing biology at Berkeley was finally realized, officially creating what is now the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology.

At just that time, Professor John Taylor and three colleagues, sabbatical visitor Tom White, postdoc Tom Bruns, and graduate student Steve Lee, were hard at work on a chapter for the laboratory manual PCR: Protocols and Applications. Despite its slightly dry title, “Amplification and direct sequencing of fungal ribosomal RNA genes for phylogenetics” was destined to become a scientific classic. Explaining how standard biotechnology tools can help infer evolutionary relationships, the paper has become one of the most-referenced research publications produced by UC Berkeley scientists. Recently, it attained an extraordinary 5,500 citations in other scientific articles. That success parallels the ascendancy of PMB, which celebrated its 20-year anniversary with a symposium and reception on September 2.

Today, Tom Bruns is a professor and Division Chair in PMB, Steve Lee is a professor at San Jose State University, and Tom White, then a researcher with the pioneer biotech company Cetus, is now Chief Scientific Officer and Vice President for Research at Celera.

An early example of basic research carried out between industry and academia, the paper was a precursor to many future department partnerships with industry. These have included a controversial yet ultimately positive funding agreement with Novartis as well as PMB’s key role in founding the recently established Energy Biosciences Institute.

The anniversary symposium bridged the department’s history and its future. Rod Park, professor emeritus and a principal architect of the biology reorganization, spoke about the history of biology at Berkeley, while emeritus professors Milton Schroth, Richard Malkin, and Jim Fristrom reviewed their respective departments, Plant Pathology, Cell Physiology, and Genetics. In the second half of the symposium, a few PMB faculty looked to the future:

While reorganizing biology at Berkeley was contentious in the 1980s, the PMB emeriti, faculty, alumni, and friends who gathered for the twentieth anniversary celebration agreed that it positioned the department for its current preeminence in the twenty-first century.

-Cyril Manning

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