Yin-Won Lee was born in the Chungnam province of South Korea and received a B.S. degree in agricultural biology from Korea’s leading university, Seoul National University (SNU), in 1974. He served in the Korean military for three years before returning to graduate school, again at SNU, where he received an M.S. degree in plant pathology in 1979. Lee’s Ph.D. degree in plant pathology was awarded in 1984 from the University of Minnesota (Twin Cities) for his work with Chester Mirocha on Fusarium mycotoxins. Following a two-year post-doctoral fellowship with Bruce Jarvis in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Maryland in College Park, he returned to Korea in 1986 for a faculty position in the Department of Plant Pathology at SNU. He moved up through the faculty ranks to become an associate professor in 1990 and a full professor in 1996.
First and foremost, Yin-Won Lee is globally recognized for his extensive original research on Fusarium mycotoxins. He has done critical work in both the chemical identification and characterization of these compounds and related compounds produced by other plants and fungi, and in the development, implementation, and utilization of molecular biological tools to understand the regulation and biosynthesis of these compounds. Toxins, such as fusarochromanone (TDP-1), sambutoxin, the fumonisin C series, and apicidin isolated from Fusarium spp., as well as the macrocyclic trichothecenes produced by Myrothecium and Baccharis, were first identified and characterized by Lee and his colleagues. His molecular biology accomplishments are just as important. He and his colleagues identified the critical genes in the trichothecene pathway and developed the PCR test that is the standard for testing strain genotypes to predict whether the mycotoxin nivalenol or deoxynivalenol will be produced. They then used this test to identify the frequency of these genotypes in Korean field populations of F. graminearum and confirmed their genetic predictions with the most sophisticated chemical analyses available. He was the first to identify the gene cluster for zearalenone, with its unusual composition that includes two polyketide synthase genes in addition to an oxidase and a transcription factor, and for aurofusarin biosynthesis, which provides a ready study for gene regulation by monitoring the amount of pigment produced under various conditions. From F. semitectum, on which almost no work has been done, he isolated the gene cluster for apicidin production, bringing full circle the chemical analyses he made earlier in his career when this compound was chemically identified and characterized.
Lee has also made very significant contributions to basic studies of Fusarium biology. He showed that Korean cereals were cocontaminated with nivalenol and deoxynivalenol, with nivalenol levels higher than deoxynivalenol levels, a finding that is quite different from the situation in the United States, where deoxynivalenol is found almost exclusively. He also has provided the only ecological evidence for the differentiation of lineage 6 of F. graminearum, also known as F. asiaticum, from the other phylogenetic lineages in F. graminearum, by showing that strains of lineage 6 are sexually more fertile on rice, a critical cereal in rotations in Asia, than it is on wheat or on standard in vitro laboratory media. Lee and his colleagues also rendered classical genetic work possible by disabling the self-fertilizing capacity of homothallic strains of F. graminearum and thus rendering them obligatory heterothallic. The strains they developed are at the base of many classical and molecular genetic analyses in this organism in the last eight years. They also used these mutants to identify additional genes required for sexual development by this fungus and to study fungal sexuality in ways not even considered for other members of this genus.
A second important career contribution has been in teaching and mentoring a large cohort of new students and post-docs in South Korea. In addition to the usual teaching and research supervision duties, Lee has served as a role model and as a mentor to five post-doctoral researchers, 10 Ph.D. students, and 26 M.S. students. These students have gone on to faculty positions not only in Korea, but also in the United States, private industry (where some now run their own pharmaceutical companies), and Korean government research labs.
A third significant career contribution has been in administrative and professional service. Lee was the originator and director of two large research centers at SNU, the Center for Agricultural Biomaterials, and the Center for Fungal Pathogenesis. These centers are awarded by the National Research Foundation of Korea based on merit across all biological sciences, and are extraordinarily competitive. In the most recent competition, Lee’s Center for Fungal Pathogenesis was the only center funded in agricultural research. As the long-time editor-in-chief and later an editorial board member of The Plant Pathology Journal he guided the growth of this publication, which was originally named the Korean Journal of Plant Pathology. He has also served on the editorial boards of Applied and Environmental Microbiology, Mycotoxins, and Eukaryotic Cell.
Lee’s exceptional career contributions have been recognized both inside and outside of South Korea. In 2009, Lee was awarded the Outstanding Researcher of the Year Award by the Korean Society of Plant Pathology in recognition of his exceptional career contributions to Korean science and to the Korean plant pathology community. He was also invited to serve as an adjunct professor of plant pathology at Kansas State University in recognition of his regular and continuing contributions to the Fusarium Laboratory Workshop series.
For his pioneering research work with Fusarium through the characterization of its mycotoxins, their biosynthesis, and the application of chemical and molecular biological findings to provide new insights into the life history, plant pathology, and applied biology of Fusarium species, Lee is deserving of the title of Fellow of The American Phytopathological Society. His exemplary leadership in developing the plant pathology scientific community in South Korea is equally deserving of special recognition.