Biochemist seeks healthier foods, environment

It is always interesting to follow the trail that leads to great innovation. Such is the case with John Browse, professor of biochemistry and plant physiology in the Institute of Biological Chemistry (IBC).

Browse is being awarded the 2004 Sahlin Faculty Excellence Award for Research, Scholarship and Arts for his wide-ranging and extensive research in plant lipid biochemistry.

The Sahlin awards are designed to honor those faculty members who epitomize the highest levels of performance and excellence in the pursuit of the university’s goals. For this award, the recipient must have made contributions at WSU that were widely recognized as highly meritorious and that had a significant impact. Also taken into consideration are:

• creativity of the work
• comparable contributions from faculty at other universities
• honors and recognition from the work
• stature of the recipient in his/her field.

Nominations are submitted to faculty selection committees. Provost Robert Bates approves winners from names forwarded to him by the committees.

“John Browse is one of the most outstanding plant scientists active in the U.S. Today,” wrote nominator John Olrogge from Michigan State University. “Over the past 25 years, he has consistently made major advances in plant science and, more recently, also in animal lipid metabolism.”

In the early 1980s, while working as a plant biochemist in New Zealand, Browse began to collaborate with researchers at Michigan State, where work was in progress to study starch synthesis and storage using a tiny plant called Arabidopsis.

Browse said those efforts inspired him to “consider doing the same thing with fatty-acid research.”

Because of the difficulty in defining the complex biochemistry of the plant, Browse decided to try using genetics to provide information. This idea of combining genetics and biochemistry eventually led to an explosion in research on polyunsaturated plant oils, called lipids.

Browse came to the U.S. in 1988 when WSU offered him a chance to develop his research program at IBC. A breakthrough came as Browse and his team identified and cloned the desaturase gene in Arabidopsis, which stimulates synthesis of polyunsaturated fatty acids in plants.

This discovery has since led to the bioengineering of larger plants — such as soybeans, canola and flax — to produce oils with lower levels of saturated omega-6 fatty acids, while increasing levels of the heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Related research also focuses on engineering plants to produce more sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels and petrochemicals — i.e., biodiesel and precursors for biodegradable plastics and resins.

Other areas of Browse’s research involve engineering plants to better survive low temperatures, and studies on how plant membranes use signaling systems to ward off attacks by fungi and bacteria.

“I look forward to the day when we can provide healthier food oils as well as environmentally friendly ways to produce plastics, resins and chemical products that enhance people’s lives,” said Browse.

Norm Lewis, director of IBC, said, “professor Browse has dedicated his life to the study of plant biochemistry and is clearly the world leader in a highly competitive field. The DuPont corporation has used one of his discoveries to improve the nutritional values of soybeans. Also, Dow Agro Sciences formed the Oilseed Engineering Alliance, which includes Browse and WSU, in its quest to improve oils and fatty acids in crop plants.”

“During my career at Washington State University, I have greatly appreciated this collegial and committed research community that we have,” said Browse. “Many of our faculty have made outstanding research contributions, so I take it as a special honor that my colleagues have chosen me to receive the Sahlin Award.”

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