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LTAAward Von Wettstein 10

LTAAward Diter Von Wettstein September 18, 2010

Ceremony of the Rebeiz Foundation for Basic Research Lifetime Achievement Award to Professor Diter Von Wettstein

Diter von Wettstein was born in Gottingen, Germany. He obtained his High School Certificate in Innsbruck, and studied in Tubingen where he chose a famous Ph.D. mentor, Erwin Bunning. Then he worked with ├ke Gustafsson as a research assistant at the University of Stockholm, where he obtained his habilitation in 1957, as well as a university lecturer appointment. Then he journeyed to the USA, where he worked as a Rockefeller Fellow and carried out research at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and the Carnegie Institution in Stanford. A few years after returning to Stockholm, in 1962 he went to Denmark, where he became a full professor and director of the Institute of Genetics at the University of Copenhagen. In 1975, he assumed the Headship of the Carlsberg Laboratory and the Directorship of the newly created research center there. Under his leadership, the Carlsberg Laboratory developed into a modern biological research center, in which novel basic phenomena were worked out. In September 1996, he retired from the Carlsberg Research Centre but continued with his research as the R. A. Nilan Distinguished Professor at Washington State University in the Departments of Crop and Soil Sciences and Genetics and Cell Biology.

Professor von Wettstein was awarded the Rebeiz Foundation for Basic Research (RFFBR) Life time Achievement Award (LTAAward) for 2009, on September 18, 2010, for his many outstanding contributions to chloroplast and chlorophyll research and his numerous other biological research achievements. An account of the ceremony that highlights these achievements follows.

The Ceremony

The ceremony took place on Saturday September 18, 2010, at 5:00 pm at the RFFBR headquarters, 2209 Edgewater Place Champaign Illinois. Fifty five guests, including four Foundation Board Members (Christoph Benning, Govindjee, Constantin A. Rebeiz, and Carole Rebeiz) attended the ceremony which consisted of a social hour, and buffet dinner that lasted 2.5 h and was accompanied by an assortment of wines. This was followed by testimonials by Govindjee (University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign), Ken Hoober (Arizona State University), Carole Rebeiz (Secretary-Treasurer of the Foundation), and C. A. Rebeiz (RFFBR President). At the end of the ceremony, a recognition plaque (see below) and a monetary award were presented to Diter. The ceremony was concluded with a Champagne toast to Diter, and birthday cakes to Diter and Christoph Benning.

A copy of the mahogany framed certificate of recognition to Diter von Wettstein is Shown Below


C. A. Rebeiz (Tino) acted as master of ceremony and introduced the various speakers. . His introduction briefly stated that Sir Bertrand Russel, the known British philosopher mentioned in one of his essays that science moves forward by scientists building on the shoulders of one another. By recognizing the achievements of Diter, we hope to encourage young scientists to build on Diter's work in inventing the future.

An account of the introductory remarks is given below.

Tino started by acknowledging the Board members of the Foundation who by casting their vote have chosen Diter von Wettstein as the recipient of the 2009 RFFBR Life Time Achievement Award. They are, in alphabetical order:

Thomas Bach, University of Strasbourg, France

Hans Bohnert, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC)

Christoph Benning, Michigan State University

Donald A Bryant, Pennsylvania State University

Henry Daniell, Central Florida University

Govindjee, UIUC

J. Kenneth Hoober, Arizona State University

William Lucas, University of California at Davi

Archie Portis, UIUC,

Carole C. Rebeiz, RFFBR,

Constantin A Rebeiz, RFFBR, and

Baishnab C. Tripathy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.

Then Tino Stated that it is common knowledge among historians that the study of the Past helps in understanding the future. Therefore, we are gathered here tonight to honor the past achievements of Diter von Wettstein. By recognizing his past achievements we hope to take notice of the achievements of young scientists who are now attempting to emulate Diter. Several of tonight's speakers will describe some of Diter's achievements. I would like to point out that these achievements are of universal value. In addition to their inherent Academic value, Diter's new research activities aimed at breeding wheat varieties. that can be consumed by persons suffering from ciliac disorder may enable many persons around the world to eat wheat products. With this said I would like to introduce tonight's speakers."

Then the platform was turned over to several other speakers, namely:

Govindjee, Professor Emeritus at UIUC, 2006 recipient of the RFFBR LTAAward,

Ken Hoober Professor Emeritus, Arizona State University,

Carole C. Rebeiz, RFFBR secretary-treasurer and

C. A. Rebeiz, Professor Emeritus University of Illinois and President of the RFFBR.


Govindjee, (see below) an expert Photosynthesis scientist, a recipient of the first Rebeiz Foundation Life Time Achievement Award, given in 2006, a member of the Foundation Board gave a PowerPoint presentation that detailed some of Diter's achievements. The presentation includes information about Diter's famous father and grandfather, a quote from Barry Osmond, his education, his academic carrier and most importantly valuable photographs about Diter's life from 1976 to 1078 (courtesey of David Simpson), and his extraordinary list of honors and a list of his top web sites.

Click Here to View Govindjee's Testimonial


From left to right: Govindjee, Diter, and Penny von Wettstein

Ken Hoober

Ken Hoober gave the next testimonial. Ken is Vice-President of the RFFBR, a member of the Board of Directors of the foundation and a Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University. He is a distinguished chlorophyll and chloroplast scientist who presently heads Susavion Biosciences, Inc., a start-up biotechnology company.


Ken Hoober

Ken began his testimonial by pointing out that North of Copenhagen, outside of the small town of Hiller°d, is Fredericksborg Castle, a 17th century, extraordinary building that houses The Museum of National History. On the third floor, above the architectural glitter and portraits of the famous historical figures in Denmark, is a photo gallery of the more contemporary politicians, artists and entertainers. Ken continued, when I visited the castle in 1987, I found photographs of only two scientists in this gallery: Niels Bohr and Diter von Wettstein. This illustrates the stature that Diter has enjoyed in Denmark

In 1953, Diter received two Ph.D. degrees, one from the University of TŘbingen (Doctorate in Science) for research in Biology/Biochemistry and a second one from the University of Stockholm in Genetics. He also received a D.Sc degree in 1957 from the University of Stockholm in genetics. From 1957 to 1962, he was Associate Professor in Genetics, at theUniversity of Stockholm. During that period he was also a Rockefeller Fellow at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), the Carnegie Institution of Washington, at Stanford, and Cold Spring Harbor. In 1962 he became Professor of Genetics and Head of the Institute of Genetics at the University of Copenhagen. In 1972 he was asked to join the Carlsberg Research Laboratory as Head of the Department of Physiology, a position he held until retirement in 1996. His arrival at the Carlsberg Laboratory coincided with construction of an excellent building for research and a major expansion in staff. He was also the Head of the Carlsberg Plant Breeding group. During this time, he was Visiting Professor at the University of California, Davis, and Washington State University. Since his "official" retirement, he has been the RA Nilan Distinguished Professor, Department of Crop and Soil Sciences and School of Molecular Biosciences, and Center for Integrated Biotechnology, Washington State University, at Pullman.

Diter was a pioneer in applying genetics to the study of chloroplast development. During his years in Stockholm and Copenhagen, he collected 357 mutant strains of barley that have deficiencies in pigment biosynthesis. These mutations were characterized genetically to more than 105 loci, a major contribution that he made to the Nordic Gene Bank. The mutants were organized according to pigment phenotype into groups designated xantha, albina, viridis, tigrina, zonata, and chlorina. Analysis of the specific chlorophyll precursor that accumulated in these mutants allowed many of them to be placed on the biosynthetic pathway. Electron microscopic examination showed that a number of mutants were also defective in the assembly of thylakoid membranes. His integrated genetic, biochemical and microscopic analyses of these mutants had an enormous impact on the early stage of research on chloroplast development. He was one of the first to desctibe the structural changes in plastid development from the proplastid to the chloroplast stage. His conclusion, that thylakoid membranes arise from vesicles from the plastid envelope, required nearly 35 years for confirmation and is now receiving increasingly strong support.

Diter had the outstanding ability to attract excellent scientists to his department at Carlsberg, which became a mecca for many students, postdoctoral fellows and visiting scientists. A major effort by Diter's group was elucidating the pathway of chlorophyll biosynthesis. After Paul Castelfranco's lab showed that 5-aminolevulinate, the first committed precursor of chlorophyll biosynthesis, is made intact from a 5-carbon precursor, Diter's group identified a tRNA involved as glutamyl-tRNA. They established that glutamate 1-semialdehyde was the product of reduction of glutamyl-tRNA, and revealed the mechanism of the conversion of this interesting intermediate to ALA by glutamate 1-semialdehyde aminotransferase.

As the techniques of gene mapping matured, Diter returned to his mutants and was successful in cloning several genes in the biosynthetic pathway of chlorophyll. The convergence of sequencing of the barley genome and identification of genes for chlorophyll biosynthesis in photosynthetic bacteria facilitated the cloning of barley genes. In particular, genes were identified that are involved in the cyclase reaction that generates the isocyclic fifth ring and in the Mg chelatase step. These results contributed to elucidation of the biochemistry of these reactions. Recent work involves microarray analysis of expressed genes in his collection of barley mutants to identify additional genes involved in chloroplast development and biogenesis of thylakoid membranes. One of Diter's colleagues remarked that "Diter is really good at picking problems that are solvable." After identifying a problem, he would promise a solution if the agency would fund his basic research. It also did not hurt that the Carlsberg Laboratory was underwritten by drinkers of copious amounts of Carlsberg beer. The direct coupling of question and answer has been the genius of his work, something NIH has recently begun to emphasize. Diter engaged in a line of applied research to enhance the quality of barley for beer and animal and chicken feed. During malting, starch degradation by ?-amylase is often incomplete because the heat destroys the ?-glucanase that must depolymerize the aleurone layer surrounding the endosperm. A hybrid, codon-optimized, heat-tolerant ?-glucanase was generated from Bacillus species that when expressed in transgenic barley survived the malting process and increased the efficiency during making beer. In addition, he identified genes involved in synthesis of proanthocyanidins and, by breeding of mutants, obtained strains that lack these tannins. The beer made from these strains is clear without the need to remove haze by chemical treatments. I am not sure how well Diter likes beer, but he saw this as an interesting scientific question. In a major advance for agriculture, his group showed that the transgenic strain of barley that expresses the ?-glucanase is much more easily digested by chickens. This accomplishment allowed chickens to thrive on a diet essentially free of corn. He has also genetically engineered barley to achieve strains that are resistant to stem rust fungus, which improved agricultural yields. In the past two years he received nearly $2 million from NIH and the Washington Life Science Discovery Fund to develop gluten-free strains of wheat to allow people with celiac disorder to eat foods containing wheat flour

Diter's scientific productivity has been truly outstanding, and at the age of 82 is still continuing. He was elected to the US National Academy of Sciences in 1981 as a Foreign Associate in Plant Biology. Overall, he is a member of at least 11 Academies of Sciences and received a distinguished decoration for rendering outstanding service to the Republic of Austria by its President. He has organized many conferences and given innumerable lectures around the world.

Diter is married to Penny von Wettstein-Knowles, who is an outstanding biochemist in the Department of Genetics at the University of Copenhagen. They along with their daughters love the Austrian Alps, where they have a chalet for hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter. A few years ago he endured hip replacement to allow him to continue hiking. Diter has a brilliant mind and has had an immensely productive career. He deserves his place next to Niels Bohr and I am pleased that he has been awarded the Rebeiz Foundation for Basic Research 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award.

Carole Rebeiz

Carole Rebeiz, my wife, gave the next testimonial and dwelled upon Diter's chloroplast electron microscopy work. Carole is the secretary of the RFFBR. She is an electron microscopist who is a fan of Diter's early electron microscopy work. I should point out that both Diter and I met our wives at UC Davis. I met Carole in 1961 and Diter met Penny in 1966.


Carole Rebeiz

Carole pointed out that between 1963 and 1965, she received training in electron microscopy and worked for Katherine Esau as her Research Assistant for about 9 months, until Katherine moved with Vernon Cheadle to UC Santa Barbara, where Vernon assumed the Chancellorship. During that period, Professor Elliott Weir introduced Diter's pioneering research on chloroplast ultrastructure and biochemistry to the plant science students and faculty at UC Davis. She stated that over the years I have been impressed by Diter's ability to delve deeper and deeper into the structure and function of normal plastids and the plastids of the many barley mutants he has collected. Diter has studied chloroplasts as a plant breeder, microscopist, geneticist, biochemist and molecular biologist. He is that rare scientist who has steadily honed and broadened his skills and insight during the past 50+ years. His research on breeding gliadin-free wheat that can be consumed by persons suffering from celiac disorder demonstrates that he continues to do so today.

C. A. Rebeiz

Tino Rebeiz gave the last testimonial of the evening and stated that since he and Diter share common research interests, Tino would like to present his own testimonials about Diter achievements. Tino chose three topics to talk about. First he talked about Diter's contributions to the understanding of the beginning and mid-reactions of the chlorophyll (Chl) biosynthetic pathway, then he talked about more recent contributions to the development of wheat varieties that can be consumed by persons suffering from the Celiac disorder


From left to right: Tino Rebeiz, Govindjee, Diter von Wettstein and Penny von Wettstein

Tino stated that chlorophyll is a very large molecule made up of four components called pyrrole rings. Delta-aminolevulinic acid (ALA), a 5-carbon amino acid, is the building block of these pyrrole rings. It is also the building block of heme another large molecule made up of 4 pyrrole rings. Heme is part of hemoglobin in the blood of animals and humans and is the oxygen carrier in hemoglobin. The biosynthetic reactions leading to the formation of ALA in animals and humans had been laboriously elucidated in the 1950s, by David Shemin and plant plant scientists assumed that the same reactions were also operational in plants during the formation of Chl. However, for many years, no one could detect in plants the ALA synthesizing enzymes that were functional in animals. Then in 1972, Paul Castelfranco and his group demonstrated that in plants, ALA was made in a totally different manner than in animals and they proposed several schemes for the biosynthesis of ALA in plants. By the way Paul Castelfranco, who was my Ph.D advisor, received the RFFBR 2007 LTAAward. In 1972 Diter was Department Head at the Carlsberg Laboratory in Denmark and Director of the newly created Carlsberg Research Center. Carlsberg is the maker of the famous Danish Carlsberg beer. At the Carlsberg research center, Diter directed a very active research group that finally elucidated the correct set of reactions that resulted in the formation of ALA in plants and which proved to be different from the scheme favored by Paul Castelfranco and his group

Also, one of the very important reactions of the Chl biosynthetic pathway is the insertion of Mg into protoporphyrin IX (Proto), the last common intermediate of the Heme and Chl biosynthetic pathways, to yield Mg-Proto, the first committed Mg-containing tetrapyrrole intermediate in Chl biosynthesis. That reaction is very important because if Mg-Proto is not formed, Chl cannot be made. In this respect I have to backtrack and recall a little bit of history. In January1971, I published the work that I had started in 1967 in Lebanon, in my laboratory at the National Research Institute and finished in 1970 in Paul Castelfranco's lab. In the two back to back article that appeared in January 1971 in plant physiology, I described along with Paul Castelfranco, and for the first time, the total biosynthesis of Chl a and b from ALA in cell-free systems. At that time the work attracted a lot of attention. In order to achieve the total biosynthesis of Chl from ALA we had developed a cocktail made up of many constituents. One of the components of that cocktail was a compound (a cofactor) called ATP. At the University of Illinois, as part of my research program, I tried to demonstrate the insertion of Mg-into Proto in vitro using the Chl biosynthesis cocktail that contained ATP. In these efforts I always formed a mixture of Zn and Mg-Proto and I finally developed equations that allowed me to measure the amount of Mg-Proto that was made in the presence of Zn-Proto. Then a few years later Paul Castelfranco and his group demonstrated that by increasing the amount of ATP 10 fold, they were able to make Mg-Proto without the formation of Zinc Proto and they demonstrated that ATP was essential for the formation of Mg-Proto. A few years ago Diter and his group in a very elegant paper, described the mechanism of the reaction by working out its molecular biology. They described how the three protein subunits of the enzyme that inserts Mg into Proto work jointly to achieve the Mg insertion. One subunit binds to ATP, another subunit binds Proto and the third subunit inserts the bound Mg into the bound Proto to form Mg-proto which is then released from the enzyme. That work will remain a classic for a long time.

Finally, persons with a congenital celiac disorder develop intolerance toward certain glutens in wheat, barley and rye flower. It is triggered by undigested proline and glutamine rich peptides that are taken up through the intestinal mucosa. The autoimmune response damages the intestinal lining. Diter has recently been generously funded by NIH to develop wheat varieties that do not contain the gluten that may generate the autoimmune response yet that bake perfectly well.

Now it is time to present Diter with the Foundation Recognition Certificate and an Envelope containing the monetary Award. Diter, Please step to my right and Penny to my left.


Diter Receiving the Foundation Awards: From left to right, Penny von Wettstein, Tino Rebeiz presenting theRFFBR Awards to Diter, and Diter von Wettstein

Then Diter gave a speech which is reproduced below. Click HERE to access the Speech.

diter Giving Speech

Diter von Wettstein delivering his speech

To end the ceremony, a Champaign Toast to Diter's achievements was made. The guests grabbed a glass of Champaign from the Breakfast room counter and toasted Diter

Toasting Diter


We thank Mrs. Anita Huett for helping with the buffet, drinks and the guests and Laurent Gasquet of Gasquet Photography, who recorded the ceremony on photos.

Representative photos taken by Laurent Gasquet willbe displayed below as collages

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