Born in London, England, Ulrich Melcher grew up in New York City and Westport, Connecticut. Melcher obtained his B.S. degree in biochemistry from the University of Chicago, and his Ph.D. degree in biochemistry in 1970 from Michigan State University. He was a NATO post-doctoral scientist in bacterial genetics at Aarhus University’s Molecular Biology Laboratory, and then in molecular immunology at New York University and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School. Melcher began working with plant viruses at Oklahoma State University, and later was awarded a Fulbright sabbatical in Strasbourg, France. Currently, Melcher is R. J. Sirny Professor of Agricultural Biochemistry in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Oklahoma State University (OSU) and adjunct professor in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics. His scientific accomplishments span fields from biophysics and bioinformatics through bacteriology and immunology to brewing and phytopathology. As a result, he has helped author close to 100 scientific papers in over 50 diverse journals. His current interests are in plant virus biodiversity and ecology, and bacterial pathogens of plants.
Melcher began research in plant virology through a desire to develop Cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV) into a vector for gene transfer to plants. His laboratory was one of the first to identify the CaMV gene (gene II) for aphid acquisition, and showed that gene II could be mutated and the recombinant CaMV could still be mechanically inoculated to plants. Studies by his group on the mechanisms of CaMV DNA recombination revealed the difficulties of using CaMV as a vector. Skeleton hybridization, a Melcher lab technique that inspired others to develop tissue printing, has, in others’ hands, revealed much about virus spread through plants. Further studies focused on recombination in plant viruses and other aspects of virus evolution. His expertise in sequence analysis allowed him to predict which genes for viruses of many different genera encoded the proteins necessary for virus cell-to-cell movement in plants. He has helped many colleagues with technical aspects of sequence alignment and phylogenetic analysis. Melcher and colleagues discovered, characterized, and popularized Turnip vein-clearing virus (TVCV), an Arabidopsisinfecting member of the genus Tobamovirus suited for molecular genetic investigations. Since its discovery, TVCV has become a model virus and has been used by others to identify host genes for intercellular movement of the viral infection and cadmium induced blockage of viral movement in plants. Melcher and his lab set up, and Melcher curates, VirOligo, a database of oligonucleotides used in virus detection. In recent years, Melcher’s interests have shifted to estimating the biodiversity of plant viruses and developing pan-virus detection assays.
Melcher is an excellent collaborator. An early collaboration with Margaret Essenberg resulted in the demonstration that the cotton phytoalexin, dihydroxycadalene, is active against bacteria but would also inactivate CaMV. Collaborative research with Jacqueline Fletcher led to demonstrating phage-mediated immunity in spiroplasmas through integration of phage DNA in the host chromosome and in identification of phage genomes as modified insertion sequences. Recent collaborative efforts directed at the molecular mechanisms of transmission of the spiroplasma by leafhopper vectors led to identifying and characterizing several spiroplasma-encoded proteins that may serve as adhesins. Interestingly, one of these appears to have a phage origin. Melcher also works with Oklahoma and Texas plant pathologists in understanding a new disease, cucurbit yellow vine. He provided the molecular expertise that guided the characterization of the causal organism as a strain of Serratia marcescens and designed diagnostic PCR primers for it and other cucurbit pathogens.
In addition to his own research activities, Melcher has taken a leadership role in Oklahoma’s NSF-EPSCoR project, serving as coordinator for the two most recent biological theme areas. Currently, he serves on the Steering Committee of the state’s NIHIDeA Network for Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) Program. He has been president of OSU’s chapter of Sigma Xi, received its Chapter Lectureship Award, and is its webmaster. Webmastering duties are also performed for the Virology Committee of The American Phytopathological Society (APS). For APS, he also has served as associate editor of Phytopathology, organizer of Virus Evolution Symposia, and member of the Microbial Forensics Interest Group. He has served as president and treasurer of OSU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors and led the establishment of a faculty council in his college. For the Oklahoma Academy of Science, he has twice served as chair of the Biochemistry and Biophysics section, and in January 2006, he entered the presidential lineage of the academy. He teaches molecular biology courses using his molecular genetics webtext, a designated “Cool Site,” and mentors graduate students. The OSU Graduate and Professional Student Association chose him as one of three finalists for the “best graduate student mentor.”
In summary, Melcher is an internationally recognized pioneer and contributor in investigations of the diversity and molecular evolution of plant viruses. He also is recognized worldwide as an authority on the molecular interactions of viruses and bacteria with plant hosts and insect vectors. His research program has provided a framework for the outstanding mentoring of young scientists at the undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral levels, and he is well known as an excellent collaborator in both research and teaching.