© Washington State University
In spite of the fine centennial histories by George Frykman, Bill Stimson, and Dick Fry, as well as earlier histories, we have no comprehensive history of research and scholarship, no history of ideas from Washington State University. Unfortunately, the following will not rectify the situation.
What we hope to do, however, is spark a collective effort to generate an informal history of big ideas, accomplishments, discoveries, and so forth. The ideas here are a just a sampling. Our list continues here on our website. Most important, we hope you will help us build this encyclopedia of what really is a remarkable accumulation of intellectual accomplishments.
And all of it started with ideals to match the largeness of the ideas that would follow. President Enoch Bryan obviously believed deep in his heart that Washington State College was the epitome of the land grant mission. “Hitherto college education had ministered to the professional classes,” Bryan told a meeting of the Washington dairy association; “henceforth it was to minister to the industrial classes.” By industrial, he did not mean timeclock factory laborers, but the industrious in contrast to the professionals. Farmers, carpenters, business people. All, he believed, deserve the best education available.
A huge caveat is in order here. In offering this list, we claim no scientific method for its development. We consulted no citation indexes or focus groups or lists of prizes or grants. We simply found them all very interesting, integral parts of WSU’s rich intellectual history. We also believe that all of them have added to our understanding of us and our universe or have resulted in making the world a better place.
On the other hand, the absence here of an idea, an accomplishment, or a person does not indicate they are not great. This list is merely a start. Please help us build it.
Tim Steury, Editor
Washington State College
The 1913 Chinook opens with a lengthy homage to President Enoch Bryan. In part: “We realize full well that the growth, the development of the State College, has not been due to the natural outgrowth of the economic conditions of Washington, but rather that the magnificent buildings, the atmosphere of learning, the joys, the hopes, the memories, all, in fact, that make the institution dear to our hearts, have been brought about chiefly through the efforts of one man—Enoch Albert Bryan—that but for his untiring and persistent work the State College would stand today as it did fifteen or twenty years ago, an agricultural college in embryo, without organization, without equipment, and without support.”
Fourteen years earlier, facing fierce resistance from the University of Washington, various legislators, and farmers, Enoch Bryan began his fight to change the name of Washington Agricultural College and School of Science to Washington State College.
In recounting the years of his effort, President Bryan wrote that the original name was “misleading and a hindrance to the fulfillment of the very functions of the college prescribed by both state and national law. People would persist in a wholly erroneous interpretation of the functions of the college, thinking that it was confined to instruction in farming and having a total misconception as to what instruction in agriculture involved.”
His antagonists fought back. Farmers objected to anything that lacked “agricultural” in its name. Supporters of the UW feared that Bryan was trying to create a second state university.
But finally in 1905, after six years, Bryan prevailed. In the name change, Bryan made the seemingly conflicting point that even though Washington State College was never just an ag school, it would be a fully developed college that offered all the dimensions necessary to agriculture.
That same year, he convinced the Regents to authorize a three-year school of music. “Mere empirical knowledge, “ he had earlier warned students, was “helpless to give you the power you seek.” Rejecting the old classical curriculum he had absorbed, he championed a mix of science, agriculture, and the liberal arts. No matter what their major, students at the time studied chemistry, American and European history, mathematics, English literature, and two foreign languages.
Reflecting on the legitimization of science as an academic study as well as the merging of liberal arts and science in his big idea, Bryan described the radical new curriculum enabled by his and other land grant schools. He told the Association of Land-Grant Colleges and Universities in 1898, “Slowly the notion was forming that the mind grows by what it feeds upon, and that it feeds upon the multitude of sensations which come flocking inward through the open windows of all the senses; that the blue-bird’s wing and the silver sheen of the speckled trout meet with a corresponding somewhat in the human mind just as surely as does the epigram of Plato; that truth and beauty lie no more deeply concealed in every dull clod and crawling worm of this great cosmos about us than in the mysteries of this microcosm within us.”
Application of Mendel’s laws of inheritance to agricultural breeding
When President Bryan was traveling in England in 1911, he visited Cambridge University and was given a tour of research laboratories. In one, which was studying Mendel’s laws of inheritance, he noticed photographs on the wall of studies on wheat hybridizing.
“Why, that looks like Professor Spillman’s work,’’ he exclaimed.
“That is Professor Spillman’s work,” answered his guide.
Recruited by Bryan, William Jasper Spillman had been one of Washington State Agricultural College’s first faculty members. Although Spillman was in Pullman from only 1894 to 1901, he was enormously productive and creative, both in basic science and practical agricultural applications.
Spillman is known for achievements as various as inventing agricultural economics and starting Cooperative Extension after he was recruited by the USDA.
But arguably his biggest idea was rediscovering Mendelian genetics and applying them to wheat.
When Spillman arrived on the Palouse, he found farmers already totally committed to wheat and unwilling to diversify. Wheat was potentially so lucrative on the world market, they were willing to bet everything on a good crop and completely uninterested in hedging their bets with an alternate crop or livestock.
But they definitely wanted to improve their odds with varieties better adapted to the climate and conditions of the Inland Northwest. So Spillman began experimenting.
Once he had determined the optimum varieties available from elsewhere, he started crossing them.
Although no variations occurred in the first generation, when the second generation appeared, “a remarkable state of affairs was seen to exist.
“At the first glance,” he wrote, “it appeared that each of the hybrids had split up into all sorts of types. But closer inspection showed that in every case but one...the forms in each plat were simply combinations of the characters of the parent forms.”
He then used his mathematical skills to work out a system for predicting inherited traits. In other words, Spillman had, concurrently with three European scientists who published their work that year, independently rediscovered the laws of inheritance initially recorded by Gregor Mendel 40 years earlier. Although Mendel published his findings in 1866, no one seemed to grasp their significances.
Spillman’s genius resulted in an initial loss for Washington farmers, for once his ideas spread, the USDA recognized his value and recruited him. But as Laurie Carlson PhD ’04 recounts, “Spillman’s influence continued as other colleagues continued the wheat-breeding program...By 1907 six varieties were available to growers. Hybrid 128 became the most popular wheat in the Pacific Northwest, and in 1908 it was seeded on over forty thousand acres. By 1911 farmers had planted Spillman’s varieties on half a million acres.”
For more information:
Stephen S. Jones and Molly M. Cadle, “Spillman, Gaines, and Vogel—Building a Foundation,” Wheat Life, Feb. 1996.
William Spillman, “The Hybrid Wheats,” Bulletin 89 (State College of Washington Agricultural Experiment Station, 1909).
Laurie Carlson. “Forging His Own Path: William Jasper Spillman and Progressive Era Breeding and Genetics,” Agricultural History, Vol. 79, Issue 1, pp. 50-73.
Insect resistance to pesticides
Axel Leonard Melander
Of his many big ideas, entomologist A.L. Melander’s most significant might be his observation that populations of San Jose Scale, a plant-sucking insect, were becoming resistant to the lime-sulfur spray normally used to control it.
Melander joined Washington State College in 1904. Except for a brief time at Harvard, where he finished his doctorate, he was at WSC until 1926. His Pullman career was extraordinarily productive, reflecting not only the creative company of the early WSC scientific and agricultural faculty, but also the fact that there was everything to be learned in the region at the time.
Melander is widely credited with being the first to understand the implications of pesticide resistance, which he did long before the subject was more commonly considered following the introduction of organophospate insecticides after World War II. After realizing that a population in a Clarkston orchard had become resistant to lime-sulfur, he went on to pursue a rigorous series of experiments, which he later documented in a Washington Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin. He even transplanted infected trees between Yakima and Clarkston to determine what effect temperature might have on scale resistance.
Melander had earlier considered—and addressed in his Bulletin “The Wormy Apple”—the problem of why codling moth was not more effectively controlled with the very toxic lead arsenate. He determined the spray was not penetrating the calyx cup of the apple blossom and so invented the “Melander Y Nozzle” for more effective application.
Through his methods for controlling flies, he was instrumental in helping curtail typhoid fever in the Yakima Valley. He was, in fact, an expert on Diptera, the true flies, and over his career developed a collection of over 250,000 individuals, 12,000 of which are named specimens. Most of that collection ended up at the Smithsonian, with only a few duplicates and so forth remaining at the James Collection on the Pullman campus.
Finally, with C.T. Brues, Melander first published in 1915 the Key to Families of North American Insects, which went through several revisions and is still available.
Academic study of Soviet-American relations
In 1913, his second year at Washington State College, Frank Golder taught the following classes: History of Europe from 1500 to 1815, History of England, Contemporary Politics, English Constitutional and Institutional History, History of Europe since 1815, History of the (American) West, and The Far East and the United States.
In 1914, according to a footnote in Bryan’s Historical Sketch, Professor Golder completed and published his Russian Expansion in America (actually published under the title Russian Expansion in the Pacific) and requested a leave of absence to study in archives in St. Petersburg. Bryan was unable to help him financially, but Golder managed to get support from the Carnegie Institute. Golder was in St. Petersburg when Russia joined the war and was only able to return via the Siberian Railway.
After a couple of relatively docile years in Pullman, Golder arrived again in what was now called Petrograd 11 days before the fall of Nicholas II.
Again, he returned to teach at Washington State College, but then left “to assist the United States in important war work,” probably, writes Frykman, an assignment in military intelligence.
Golder officially remained, if intermittently, at WSC until 1920, when he went to Stanford, where he became curator for the Hoover Collection. According to the Hoover Institution, his acquisitions in Russia formed the foundation for its holdings on modern Russian and early Soviet history.
Golder returned once again to Pullman in 1924 to deliver an address to the WSC faculty and students, “The Lessons of the Great War and the Russian Revolution.”
Cougar Gold cheese
What can we say?
Okay, one more time: Food scientists at Washington State College started research in the 1930s on packing cheese in a can in order to meet the needs for more canned food for the military during World War II. Problem was, the cheddar culture they were using created a lot of carbon dioxide, which caused the cans to bulge and even burst. Eventually, N.S. Golding, a professor of dairy husbandry, discovered that adding a second “adjunct culture greatly reduced the gas production.
In one of the most fortuitous unintended consequences in our history, the culture, named “WSU 19” also transforms the cheddar into the unique flavor and finish of Cougar Gold. Whereas cheddars generally have some bitter notes and finish on the palate with a sour milk sharpness, Cougar Gold finishes softer and creamier.
Ordinary great ideas may ebb and flow amidst the vicissitudes of time in influence and interest—but Cougar Gold endures.
High-yielding dwarf wheat varieties
Back in the early 1970s, wheat geneticist Robert Allan was inspecting test plots at the Spillman Agronomy Farm when the skies turned dark and a tremendous wind kicked up. He headed for the gate, only to meet Orville Vogel on his way in.
There’s no sense going up to the plants, Allan said. The wheat is whipping around and likely to fall down, or lodge.
But Vogel persisted. “I want to see what varieties stay up the longest,” he said.
“That was Orville,” Allan now says, looking back. “He was a great observer.”
Vogel’s trained eye in the early 1950s spotted a scrawny plant with too many shoots around the main stalk. He thought to use it as an example of what you don’t want in a plant, but when he upped its nitrogen the next year, he noticed it was a prolific producer of seed.
It turned out to be the world’s first high-yielding dwarf-variety of wheat. Farmers could give the plant extra nitrogen, doubling the production of a conventional tall wheat variety without being so top-heavy that it fell over. Named after Edward Gaines, Vogel’s PhD advisor at WSU, the variety set a world commercial field record of 209 bushels per acre.
Moreover, seed from Vogel’s semi-dwarf lines helped Norman Borlaug develop varieties that boosted wheat production around the world in what is now known as the “Green Revolution.” After Borlaug won the Nobel Prize for his efforts, he said it was Vogel who “changed our entire concept of wheat yield potentials.”
Richard Daugherty, Roald Fryxell, Carl Gustafson, Grover Krantz, and others
Toward the end of the 1964 field season, the initial excavation of the Marmes Rock Shelter on the lower Palouse River was nearing a close. Although the site was rich, including human remains more than 7,000 years old, Richard Daugherty, head of the project, had decided that time and money were too short to continue. Construction of the Lower Monumental Dam on the Snake River would soon cause water to rise and submerge another 80 archaeological sites within the reservoir basin that had not yet been explored.
But project geologist Roald Fryxell wanted to tie the geological deposits within the rock shelter to those of the floodplain, so he had Roland Marmes, on whose land they worked, dig a deep trench with his bulldozer from the shelter to the floodplain. As he dug 12 feet below the surrounding surface, the crew following the dozer suddenly noticed pieces of human bones.
Unfortunately, they could not be certain that the bones did not fall into the trench from higher up. If they were at their original depth, however, they were very old.
And so ensued not only an absorbing archaeological drama, but a sociological and political one as well.
In the early spring of 1968, archeology students dug a test pit in the bulldozed trench and found more human bones, as well as tools and animal bones, in place. Dating indicated they were more than 9,000 years old.
The ensuing excavation provided a rich picture of the culture of the native people of the lower Columbia Plateau, capturing the imagination of the press, the public, and politicians. A multi-disciplinary study of the site revealed the changing climate and environment over time. But most dramatically, their work pushed human occupation of western North America back much further than had previously been believed.
The work grew more feverish as the date for filling the reservoir approached. Senator Warren Magnuson, who was chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, appropriated a million dollars for the Army Corps of Engineers to build a cofferdam to protect the shelter from the rising water.
But tragically, the rock under the excavation was porous, and the water rose inside the cofferdam as quickly as it did throughout the basin. The archaeologists frantically worked to protect the site as well as they could, then watched as one of the most significant archaeological sites in North America sank beneath the water.
Integrated mite management
Not only had spider mites become an extremely damaging pest of apples in Washington by the mid-1960s, but the most serious of three different species, the McDaniel spider mite, had developed populations resistant to the pesticides growers had in their arsenal. It was time to consider a different approach to the threat, because the status quo pesticide control wasn’t working.
Stan Hoyt, entomologist at the WSU Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee, had found that a predacious mite, Typhlodromus occidentalis, could regulate the density of spider mite populations in unsprayed orchards. “This fact,” he reported in a 1969 paper in The Journal of Economic Entomology, “suggested that, if selective insecticides could be found, integrated chemical control of insects and biological control of mites would offer a solution to the problem.”
Hoyt’s program started from the understanding that the mere presence of pests does not necessarily mean economic loss. As he noted in his paper, one of the most difficult tasks in establishing pest management (in contrast to control) was to convince growers that certain levels of pest might actually be desirable—because their limited presence would indicate that their predators were also present.
Integrated Pest Management is a blanket term for a mixed approach to pest management that started coming together in entomologists’ minds soon after the general introduction of organophosphate insecticides following World War II. Hoyt’s genius was applying the principle to a specific pest of a specific fruit.
An unfortunate frost in 1965 actually opened the way for his method’s implementation. Growers, faced with small crops, suddenly were eager to save money in any way possible. Carefully gauging the correct level of pesticide at the beginning of the season to curb populations of the pest but ensure survival of the predators meant that the predators could control the pests later on.
By 1966, growers were using Hoyt’s system on 9,000 acres of apples. By 1967, the program had grown to 40,000 acres.
Eventually, says Jay Brunner, entomologist and current head of the Tree Fruit Research Station, growers adopting Hoyt’s program were able to eliminate sprays for spider mites. He estimates that since its implementation, Washington growers have saved more than $120 million in pesticides alone.
Walt Clore, Chas Nagel, George Carter, Ray Folwell
Walter Clore, a horticulturalist at Washington State University, began testing wine grapes in Washington almost as soon as he started his job at the Irrigated Agriculture Research Station in Prosser in 1937. But it took another four decades before a wine industry in our state really took root.
In the 1970s, with the help of two WSU colleagues, Clore convinced the rest of Washington that it could not only grow wine grapes, but it could have a healthy wine industry. “(Ray) Folwell did the economics, Chas (Nagel) headed up the winemaking, and I grew the grapes,” Clore once said.
Clore planted hundreds of American, European, and hybrid grape varieties to see how they would fare in Washington’s varied soils and climates. As early as the 1960s, farmers started commercial vineyards, first trying Northern European varieties that Clore had recommended like Riesling and Gewürztraminer, and later branching out into reds like Cabernet and Semillon.
Chas Nagle, a microbiologist with WSU’s food science department, turned Clore’s yields into wine. His first releases were in 1964 and ‘65 and after that he advised winemaker George Carter. By setting up tasting panels, Nagel helped many a Washington winemaker learn to taste wine and find and diagnose problems.
In 1969, ag economist Folwell rounded out their effort with the economic view—looking at the costs of establishing vineyards and wineries and projecting consumer behavior and demand.
In 1976 Clore, with the help of Nagel and Folwell, summarized their wine and grape work in the bulletin “Ten Years of Grape Variety Responses and Wine-Making Trials in Central Washington.”
At the same time, Washington was in its first wine “boom,” with new small wineries sprouting up around Walla Walla, the Tri-Cities, and Red Mountain.
After retiring from WSU in 1976, Clore went to work as a consultant for one of the state’s first wineries, Chateau Ste. Michelle, which was established in 1967. Both he and Nagle spent decades consulting with wine grape growers and wine makers, many of whom went on to build what is today a more than $3 billion industry with more than 650 wineries, 11 appellations, and an annual production of something like 20 million gallons of wine.
Dave Gibby and Bill Scheer
In the early 1970s Washington State University extension agent Dave Gibby was overwhelmed with phone calls and messages from home gardeners demanding his help. They wanted his advice on thousands of questions like what to plant, how to combat slugs, and why their trees were dying.
Knowing he couldn’t field the hundreds of calls each week, not even with the help of fellow extension agent Bill Scheer, Gibby decided to recruit and train a team volunteers who could provide research-based information about gardening and the environment for their communities. Together, he and Scheer devised the Master Gardener program and, with the help of a 1972 Sunset Magazine article, they put out a call for home gardeners seeking to become experts. “I looked for a passion for gardening, good communication skills, and some gardening expertise,” says Gibby.
The notion caught such interest that more than 300 people volunteered for the first training course. Gibby and Scheer screened them down to 150 and in the winter of 1973, they started their first Master Gardener classes. By the end of their 50 hours of intensive training, they were eager to bank the volunteer hours necessary to achieve full Master Gardener status. “In that first season, we served 5,000 people,” says Gibby. It was a success beyond what the two extension agents ever imagined.
Today the Master Gardener model is used nation-wide. Land-grant universities in more than 40 states have programs. And each year within Washington, thousands of Master Gardener volunteers in nearly every county hold plant clinics at nurseries and farmers markets, manage demonstration gardens, and serve their communities with the training they obtained at Washington State University.
Killer tomatoes and talking plants
Clarence A. “Bud” Ryan
Starting with a bag of store-bought potatoes, a young chemist named Clarence A. “Bud” Ryan in the early 1960s discovered small proteins now widely known as protease inhibitors. But he did not fully appreciate what they did until the early 1970s, when he found that plants produced them in their leaves as a defense mechanism.
His 1972 paper in Science became a landmark on the subject, asserting that the inhibitors make the plant less nutritious and even toxic to attacking insects. It also explained how a wound in one part of a plant—in this case, tomato and potato plants under attack by Colorado potato beetles— stimulates inhibitors elsewhere in the plant as a sort of plant-wide warning system.
The work helped him become the first WSU researcher elected to the exclusive National Academy of Sciences. There was more to come.
Ryan and his colleague Edward Farmer went on to see how methyl jasmonate, a contributor to the smell of jasmine, signals plants to throw up their defenses. In one experiment, he showed how it can spread from a sagebrush to a tomato plant, demonstrating that two plants can communicate with one another.
Soon after, Ryan was back in Science with the discovery of systemin, the first polypeptide hormone found in a plant and another plant defense signal. Ryan and his lab also identified where systemin makes contact on cells.
Ryan and his colleagues continued identifying peptide-signaling systems even after his retirement in 1999. Between his arrival at WSU in 1964 and his death in 2007, he published more than 250 articles and papers, making him one of the most cited and prolific WSU faculty members.
And that’s before you count the 40,000 points he earned playing noon basketball, an unofficial Bohler Gym record.
Phone surveys and modern survey methods
In the fall of 1970, WSU administrators cancelled two days of classes for a racism workshop brought about by campus unrest the previous spring. To gauge local opinion on the workshops, a newly formed Social Research Center used its Public Opinion Laboratory for a telephone survey of students, faculty, staff and townspeople.
It turns out the students overwhelmingly appreciated the workshops. Perhaps more to the point, the administration knew it.
Such a survey sounds routine now, but it was new terrain at the time. More than 90 percent of Americans had phones by then, but surveyors had yet to establish an effective set of methods and standards for thorough, credible sampling.
That job fell to Don Dillman, a freshly minted Iowa PhD who the year before helped the mayor of Ames figure out why a bond issue for a new city hall failed.
“The reason I became involved was accidental,” he says. “I was the only one around here who had previously conducted a telephone survey.”
Over the following months and years, Dillman honed the art and science of telephone, mail and then email and web surveys. Three editions of books, starting with Mail and Telephone Surveys: The Total Design Method, have been cited more than 13,000 times by fellow researchers.
“It’s the first book that laid out step-by-step procedures for doing mail and telephone surveys,” says Dillman.
The renamed Social and Economic Sciences Research Center went on to do roughly 1,500 state and national surveys on questions as diverse as political preferences, public inebriation, transportation, health care and whether WSU should have a live cougar mascot.
The surveys tend to have large response rates, owing in part to a “social exchange” philosophy that encourages respondents to take part because they are helping someone answer important questions. The survey may reduce their thoughts to a number, but it still sees them as a person.
Snooze it or lose it
James Krueger built much of his career around challenging the dominant thinking of his field. For years, went this thinking, sleep was a phenomenon involving the entire brain.
That can’t be, said Krueger. Stroke victims, who have part of their brain damaged, still sleep, and dolphins have only half their brains asleep at a time.
“So we concluded from such studies that sleep is something less than a whole-brain phenomenon,” he says. “It occurs in any functionally connected group of neurons. No one had articulated that conclusion before, including the Russian scientists who had been studying sleep in dolphins.”
Krueger and his colleagues also reasoned that sleep tends to affect parts of the brain that have been heavily used. The more one part of the brain is used, the deeper it sleeps. Researchers have since seen this in the brain’s blood flow, electrical activity and in encephalograms. If a person holds a vibrator in his right hand for an extended period of time, for example, researchers will later record heavier sleep activity in the right hand’s brain region.
“It started with our theory,” says Krueger. “That’s what started people looking at local effects and use-dependent effects. Those are the two major things that I think are now relatively widely accepted within the sleep research field.”
Krueger’s theory is driven by the larger question of why animals would risk being unconscious for long periods of time—to stabilize the brain’s intricate circuitry.
“Brain connections obey the use it or lose it rule,” says Krueger. “Essential but rarely used connections might be lost without a way to preserve them. Sleep fills that need.”
Unintended results of killing older male predators
Rob Wielgus, a wildlife ecologist, started monitoring grizzly bears while in graduate school in Idaho in the early 1980s. He determined that when older males were hunted and removed from the ecological system, a social disorder resulted that threatened the survival of the remaining bears.
It didn’t take him long to realize the same notion might apply to other large predators. “It looked like it was any solitary carnivore that had extended parental care,” he says. He widened his focus to include cougars, black bear, and lynx.
Studying cougars in a specific area from the late 1990s until the early 2000s, Wielgus and his team of students found that while cougar sightings had steadily increased, the population, in fact, had declined at a rate of more than 10 percent per year. Hunters were going after the senior males and causing social disorder.
Wielgus’s findings contradicted the common notion that increased sightings meant an increasing population. In fact, says Wielgus, it’s the opposite. An older male will protect his territory, do his best to stay out of view, and preserve a social order that provides his mates the years they need to raise their kittens. If he’s gone, juvenile males will move in and kill his kittens, further reducing the population, particularly damaging the female population. Without an older male to keep them in check, in their new territory the juveniles will also chance more human and livestock encounters.
This work has changed hunting and wildlife management policies in the United States and Canada. At one time governments allowed for more hunting when there was an increase in human-cougar or human-bear encounters. Now in Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia the hunting of these large predators has been restricted. Based on Wielgus’s findings, British Columbia has created seven grizzly bear preserves.
Wielgus directs the Large Carnivore Conservation Lab at WSU with the mission of helping maintain healthy predator/prey communities in the Pacific Northwest and around the world. He and his students and post-docs have studied cougars in the Washington, grizzlies in British Columbia, and brown bears in Europe. Now his students and other researchers who have studied his work are noting how this same behavior applies to large predators world-wide, including leopards, tigers, and cheetahs.
If scientific inquiry could be seen as a detective mystery, Nancy Magnuson would be looking at a powerful character who appears to be an upstanding citizen, but with mob ties.
Her character is called PIM1. It’s a protein that ordinarily helps cells stay alive. That’s a good thing.
But if those cells happen to be cancer, which is essentially uncontrolled cell growth, it’s not good.
“There are times when you really want to have it there,” says Magnuson, a molecular bioscientist chosen to give this year’s Distinguished Faculty Address. “It was probably meant to be a good thing and only when it abnormally gets over-expressed can it cause problems.”
In research on mice carrying the PIM-producing gene, colleagues of Magnuson found that only 10 percent of the animals developed tumors. Similarly, mice exposed to a cancer-causing virus also developed tumors only 10 percent of the time.
But when the mice had both the PIM-producing gene and the cancer-causing virus, every last one developed tumors.
“This suggests PIM is helping, but in a detrimental way,” says Magnuson. “When something goes wrong, PIM’s presence means what went wrong doesn’t get repaired, and that also means a tumor can form.”
To illustrate, Magnuson compares cancer to a group of bank robbers. Most of the time, they will be stopped by an alarm or police—DNA’s self-correcting mechanism or a cell’s programmed demise. But with PIM as an accomplice, the heist goes off without a hitch.
Magnuson’s discovery of PIM’s role now has drug companies working on therapies that can specifically target growing cancer cells without the side effects of treatments that destroy normal, healthy cells.
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