Brian J. Staskawicz was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1952. He received a B.A. degree from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, in 1974, a Master of Forest Science degree from Yale University in 1976, and a Ph.D. degree in plant pathology from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1980. After three years at the International Plant Research Institute, in San Carlos, California, he was appointed to the faculty of U.C. Berkeley, where he is now the Maxine J. Elliot Professor and chair of the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology.
Dr. Staskawicz and Noel Keen were long-time friends and collaborated on several pioneering contributions to our understanding of plant resistance to pathogens. In 1984, they cloned the first avr gene from Pseudomonas and transferred it to virulent bacteria to elicit a race-specific incompatibility resistance response in soybean, providing the first molecular evidence in support of the “gene-for-gene” hypothesis for plant-pathogen resistance responses. Other seminal contributions from these early studies demonstrated that avirulence genes may condition important bacterial virulence traits and revealed a molecular mechanism for the evasion of plant host defenses when virulent mutants emerge from avirulent pathogen populations.
Dr. Staskawicz has also been in the forefront of research on plant resistance genes. He pioneered several genetic approaches that exploit natural variants in disease resistance in host populations for map-based cloning strategies and mutagenesis analyses. These combined approaches have facilitated the mapping of genes for altered disease resistance phenotypes and the identification and dissection of recognition and signal transduction pathways, culminating in the isolation and characterization of several components of plant cell death signaling pathways that are activated upon recognition of avirulence genes. Gene transfer experiments have shown that resistance genes transferred across genera retain their function and specificity. This finding should enable the identification of resistance pathways that are common to a wide range of crops and have a major impact on future plant breeding practices. Dr. Staskawicz also pioneered the use of Arabidopsis as a tool for fundamental studies of plant–pathogen interactions, leading to new models to elucidate the mechanisms whereby avirulence and resistance genes and their products interact to evoke hypersensitive resistance.
Dr. Staskawicz has received the United States Department of Agriculture Honors Award and the Ruth Allen Award. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of The American Phytopathological Society and the American Society for Microbiology. Many of these honors were also bestowed on Noel Keen in recognition of the research arising from their shared and individual efforts. Recognition of Dr. Brian Staskawicz as a recipient of the Noel T. Keen Award is based in part on this collaborative work and in part on his independent research, which together have been instrumental in leading us to a new era in plant pathology. His more recent breakthroughs promise to yield even greater insights into the molecular signaling that occurs during the response of plants to pathogens. Not only can we expect a clearer understanding of the molecular basis of gene-for-gene disease resistance, but in the near future this work should contribute to practical efforts to improve disease control by engineering broadspectrum resistance into important crop plants.