William G. Dougherty was born in Washington D.C. on 10 March 1952. He obtained a B.S. in biology from Rutgers University in 1974; thereafter, he enrolled at the University of Florida for graduate studies. Dr. Doughery received an M.S. in botany and a Ph.D. in microbiology and cell science (with a minor in plant pathology) in 1979 under the direction of Dr. Ernest Hiebert. During his Ph.D. program, Dr. Dougherty developed his career-long interest in potyviruses, a large and destructive group of plant viral pathogens found worldwide. After graduation he did postdoctoral research with Dr. Paul Kaesberg in the biophysics department at the University of Wisconsin as an NIH fellow studying the gene expression strategies of Turnip crinkle virus. He then moved to the Department of Plant Pathology at North Carolina State University as an assistant professor in 1980, where he subsequently established an active research program focusing on structure and expression of potyvirus genomes. In the spring of 1987, Dr. Dougherty moved to the Department of Microbiology, Oregon State University. He continued his research interests in potyviruses and attained the rank of full professor in 1990. After his seminal research into the mechanisms of pathogen-derived resistance, Dr. Dougherty retired to pursue other interests in 1996.
Dr. Dougherty achieved many milestones in plant virology in his career, including the cloning and sequencing of the Tobacco etch virus (TEV) genome. Analysis of this information conclusively demonstrated that potyvirus genomes are translated initially as a single, large polyprotein that is then cleaved to form the smaller functional products. After the TEV sequence was complete, research in Dr. Dougherty’s lab focused on the function of potyvirus proteins. Although the amino acid sequence of the encoded proteins could be deduced from the nucleotide sequence, experimental demonstration of protein functions during the infection cycle was lacking. To provide more definitive information in this area, Dr. Dougherty initiated a major thrust to understand how proteolytic processing of the polyprotein was initiated. Along with Jim Carrington, he identified two of the potyvirus-encoded proteinases that catalyze polyprotein processing. Using molecular genetic approaches, they found that these proteinases autoproteolytically excise from the polyprotein. Importantly, these studies led him to propose that differential processing characteristics of the potyviral cleavage sites serve as a regulatory mechanism to activate or deactivate certain proteins at specific times during the infection cycle. This series of detailed experiments solved many of the outstanding problems associated with potyvirus gene expression.
In 1992, Dr. Dougherty extended his research to begin a series of experiments to deduce the mechanisms whereby plants containing viral transgenes exhibit resistance to viruses. In the process, John Lindbo and Dr. Dougherty made the astounding discovery that transgenic plants expressing nontranslated forms of coat protein messenger RNA developed extreme resistance or immunity to infection by TEV and Potato virus Y. In a series of insightful experiments, Dr. Dougherty demonstrated that posttranscriptional gene silencing was at the core of the resistance. In a very short time, his findings developed into a highly competitive field of research involving dozens of labs. Dramatic recent progress in the field of gene silencing in plants, fungi, nematodes, fruit flies, and mammals can be traced back to Dr. Dougherty’s pioneering work. These collective endeavors have exciting fundamental and practical potential with widespread implications for resolving plant and animal health problems as well as contemporary issues in gene regulation.
Throughout his career, Dr. Dougherty’s research was supported by competitive grants from the NSF, the USDA, and the Department of Energy. His commendable record of service to science in general, and to APS in particular, provided substantial contributions to the scientific community. Among other activities, he served several years as an associate editor for Virology and Molecular Plant-Microbe Interactions. Dr. Dougherty was on the advisory committee for establishment of MPMI and he worked unselfishly to help guide the development of the journal and to ensure the high quality of papers published. Dr. Dougherty was also an influential participant in the peer review process of grant proposals submitted to several federal agencies including the USDA, NIH, NSF, and DOE.