Family and friends established a cash prize for the APS Noel T. Keen Award for Research Excellence in Molecular Plant Pathology in honor and memory of Noel T. Keen for the contributions that he made to the science of plant pathology.
Noel hit the ground running in Riverside. He reorganized the department’s graduate course in physiology of plant disease, bringing it up to date and receiving excellent reviews from students and faculty. From the beginning, Noel was interested in the chemical and biochemical characterization of the host–parasite interaction. His early contributions were in characterizing the toxic complex produced by Verticillium albo-atrum, which is responsible for wilting symptoms in cotton, and in characterizing an endopolygalacturonase from the fungus. He entered the phytoalexin field with his work on the phytoalexin from soybean induced by Phytophthora megasperma var. sojae. This became a major theme of his research. He was the first to coin the term “elicitor” for the chemicals that are produced by a pathogen and recognized by the host, resulting in the initiation of host defense responses, such as the production of phytoalexins. When he was thwarted in his quest to biochemically characterize the gene-for-gene hypothesis in soybean by the complex genetics of Phytophthora megasperma var. sojae, he switched to another system where he could utilize the genetics of the bacterial pathogen of soybean Pseudomonas glycinia. This was an example of Noel’s ability to remain at the forefront of developing fields. His switch to the bacterial pathogen opened the door to the newly developing techniques of molecular biology and led to his characterization of the single gene involved in production of the elicitors from Pseudomonas syringae pv. tomato, unprecedented secondary metabolites, the syringolides. Syringolides are responsible for the hypersensitive response of soybeans carrying the resistance gene Rpg4. His work with Pseudomonas also led to the cloning of pectate lyase genes and their insertion into Escherichia coli, converting a nonpathogen into a soft-rotting plant pathogen. Further collaborative work with X-ray crystallographers led to the discovery that the pectate lyase structure contained a new folding of the protein, the first discovered since the description of the alpha-helix and beta-sheets. The unique tertiary structure discovery has again opened new doors to study the active site of these enzymes and led to the finding by others of the generality of the new folding, termed the “parallel beta-helix.”
Noel’s work has influenced the direction of numerous research laboratories worldwide. The total package of his publications, ideas, discussions, and leadership is already recognized as a major contribution in bringing biotechnology to agriculture. A large part of Noel’s success was hard work; he regularly worked nights and weekends throughout his career. If he was in town, he could be found sitting on his lab stool at the research bench. In addition, he had from the beginning an unusual ability to grasp the important ideas of biology, chemistry, and biochemistry and to use that understanding to design innovative approaches in plant pathology.
Noel named a Fellow of APS in 1991, followed by numerous honors and lectureships, among which were Presidents Endowed Chair, University of California (1990–1992); keynote speaker, Annual Retreat, Center for Molecular Biology, University of Georgia (1991); Gatsby Traveling Fellow Lectureship, John Innes Institute, Norwich England (1992); keynote speaker, 5th International Meeting of Plant-Microbe Interactions Group, Seattle (1992); keynote speaker, 2nd European Federation of Plant Pathology Conference, Strausbourg (1992); Plant Biology Distinguished Lectureship, Texas A&M University (1993); keynote speaker, Israel Phytopathology Society, Bet Dagan (1994); distinguished lecturer, Boyce Thompson Institute, Cornell University (1994); Garret Memorial Lecture, Annual Meeting British Society for Plant Pathology, University of Warwick (1995); Ruth Allen Award, The American Phytopathological Society (1995); University of California-Riverside (UCR), Faculty Research Lecturer (1996); USDA Secretary’s Honor Award for Personal and Professional Excellence (1996); Award of Merit, CSREES, USDA (1996); William and Sue Johnson Endowed Chair in Molecular Plant Pathology (1997); Fellow, American Academy of Microbiology (1997); elected member, National Academy of Sciences, USA (1997); and distinguished lecturer, Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (1998).
Beginning as chair of the Department of Plant Pathology at UCR (1983–1989), he took on many administrative tasks: chair, Genetics Graduate Program, UCR (1994–1997); acting director, UCR Biotechnology Center (1997–2001); and member, Board of Directors, CORE21, UCR (1998–2002). He served as vice president (1999–2000) and president-elect (2000–2001) and was serving as president of The American Phytopathological Society (2001–2002), at the time of his death.
Noel served on the editorial Boards of Phytopathology, Molecular Plant-Microbe Interactions, Journal of Bacteriology, Journal of Phytopathology, Annual Review of Phytopathology, Plant Physiology, and Applied and Environmental Microbiology. In addition, he served on several scientific advisory boards: External Advisory Board, NSF Center for Engineering Plants for Resistance Against Pathogens, UC Davis; Life Sciences Review Panel, National Research Council, Associate Program; Noble Foundation, Ardmore, OK; and National Research Council Committee on the USDA/NRI Grants Program.
Those who have visited or been a part of the UCR Plant Pathology Department over the years will remember many events where Noel was usually an organizer and always a participant: Fridays at the “Barn” and “Bull and Mouth,” Chicken Liquor parties, St. Patrick’s Day wakes, wine tastings, cribbage games, hikes up the “C” mountain, oyster parties with chili, picnics, softball, volleyball, tennis, badminton, Halloween costume parties, and the Departmental Coffee Hour. He was always at the center of departmental social activities.
Noel passed away on April 18, 2002, at 61 years of age and at the pinnacle of his career. He will be missed. His wife, Diane Ill Keen, survives him. The Noel Keen Memorial Fund, UCR Foundation, University of California, Riverside, CA 92521, has been set up in his honor.
Noel Keen will always be remembered as a friend, a colleague, and a man who dedicated his life to science.