Steven E. Lindow has earned a place among a select group of scientists who have made truly exceptional contributions to plant pathology. Lindow was born in Oregon, and he received his bachelor’s degree from Oregon State University. In 1977 he was awarded a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology from the University of Wisconsin. He was appointed as an assistant professor in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of California-Berkeley in 1978 and promoted to professor in 1989. He currently serves as a Chancellor’s Professor in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology and the Executive Associate Dean of the College of Natural Resources at the University of California-Berkeley.
Throughout his career, Lindow has been the dominant force in revealing complex interactions between microbes, plants, and the environment. His contributions, described in more than 175 research publications and 70 reviews, have opened new fields of research that have resulted in major impacts on plant pathology and microbiology. In addition to his remarkable research productivity, Lindow has demonstrated a strong commitment to classroom teaching, graduate student and post-doctoral scholar mentoring, as well as extraordinary service to university, professional societies, and national and international decision-making bodies.
Early in his career, Lindow dispelled the dogma that frost injury is a purely physical phenomenon by discovering that bacteria living on leaf surfaces produce ice nucleation proteins that catalyze ice formation and thus frost damage. Lindow then showed that when applied to plant surfaces, engineered “ice minus” bacteria lacking “ice” genes could suppress ice formation by excluding destructive “ice plus” strains. This aspect of Lindow’s research provided a new and unanticipated model to explain frost formation, and led to valuable new methods of frost control for fruit and vegetable growers. Lindow subsequently pioneered the use of molecular genetic approaches for analysis of ice nucleation and proposed the “aggregation model,” whereby membrane-bound ice nucleation proteins form homogeneous aggregates that orient water molecules in crystalize structure similar to that of ice, thereby catalyzing ice formation at temperatures only slightly below zero Celsius. He then used sensitive infrared video imaging techniques to assess the super cooling ability of plants and ice propagation in and on plants under laboratory and field conditions. His work on the ecological interactions between foliar bacteria has led to the discovery and application of competitive non-ice nucleation active bacteria for the control of both frost injury and certain bacterial diseases of plants.
Lindow’s earlier fundamental results also include the discovery that bacteria can become highly tolerant to copper by step-wise acquisition of genes from other bacteria. Moreover, detailed measurements of the behavior of copper-tolerant and copper-sensitive bacterial strains showed that only free copper ions, not soluble complexes, are toxic to epiphytic bacteria. Lindow also found that fruit “russeting,” which degrades the value of otherwise marketable fruit, is caused by localized bacterial exudation of the plant growth hormone, indole acetic acid, on developing fruit. In field studies, he showed that russeting could be eliminated by spraying flowers early in the season with bacteria that exclude other hormone-producing bacteria. Hence, both Lindow’s copper and russeting research provided mechanistic understanding of host-microbe interactions that have culminated in novel and ecologically benign plant disease control applications.
Lindow later engineered sophisticated biosensors to assess the behavior of epiphytic bacteria under natural conditions that have dramatically increased our understanding of bacterial ecology. This research has shown that assumptions arising from traditional “Petri dish” approaches used in almost all earlier studies can be misleading and need to be verified under natural conditions. Recently, Lindow found that numerous genes contribute to the fitness of bacterial epiphytes, and has identified and determined the functions of gene families transcribed only on plant surfaces. These studies, the first of their kind, have added a new dimension to our understanding of the behavior of plant pathogenic bacteria in nature. Lindow’s work has also deepened our understanding of how bacterial communication can influence disease development. An amazing translational application of this fundamental research has been the development of “pathogen confusion” to control Pierce’s Disease of grapevines caused by Xylella fastidiosa. For this application, Lindow and colleagues engineered grapevine plants to produce elevated amounts of the unsaturated fatty acid molecule normally made by the pathogen that serves to induce its adhesiveness and reduce the expression of plant virulence factors. Plants expressing the fatty acid become infected, but the bacteria fail to multiply or move within plants and thus remain asymtomatic. This novel mechanism for disease control is now being tested under field conditions.
The magnitude of Steven Lindow’s impact on the discipline of plant pathology extends to his role in training the next generation of plant pathologists and environmental microbiologists. Numerous students benefiting from Lindow’s mentoring are faculty members at research universities in this country and around the world, and many of them are now leaders in plant pathology or related fields.
As a world leader in the environmental and ecological sciences, Professor Lindow has received numerous honors. He is a National Academy of Sciences Member, a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, AAAS, and the APS. Other honors include: Initiatives in Research Award of the National Academy of Sciences, Ciby-Geigy and Ruth Allen awards of the APS, and the Proctor and Gamble Award of the American Society for Microbiology. In 1995, Lindow was named Alumnus of the Year by Oregon State University. These honors provide testament to the respect and admiration with which Lindow is held by his peers in academia and industry. At U.C. Berkeley, Lindow has been honored as the Chancellor’s Professor, the Hildebrand-Laumeister Chair and a University Miller Professor Award. In 2004 he received the College of Natural Resources Teaching Award and in 2012 received the Career Achievement Award for outstanding contributions to research, teaching and service to the college.