Alumni News

October 20, 2019 at 4:58 pm

Notable Alumni | Dean DellaPenna Looks for ‘Vitamin Genes’ in Corn

Graphic for College of Arts & Sciences Notable Alumni Award

Editor’s Note: The College of Arts & Sciences Notable Alumni Awards honor alumni for broad career accomplishments, commitment to community service, and valuable contributions to Ohio University and the College of Arts & Sciences.

Dean DellaPenna ’84 Biology

Dr. Dean DellaPenna says it’s a “golden period” for researchers as genome studies shed new light on plant metabolism.

He is a University Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Michigan State University, where he is “an exceptional plant physiologist who studies medicinal plant genomics, plant metabolism and vitamin synthesis (and) one of MSU’s most visible ambassadors to the international plant science community and governmental and non-governmental agencies on the importance of basic plant research for increasing the nutritional value of plants for human health,” says his distinguished professor page.

“We are in the midst of a golden period for research into plant metabolism,” DellaPenna says on his lab page. “The ongoing development and integration of various omics-technologies with established biochemical, molecular and genetic approaches have created a ‘perfect storm’ in which we can computationally, genetically and biologically dissect metabolism between organisms, genomes and across evolutionary time. Historically, the most recent comparable period of advancement was during the 1960s and ’70s, when radiolabel allowed the pathways for much of plant metabolism as we now know it to be proposed. It is quite clear we are experiencing an analogous period of incredible advancement in our fundamental understanding of plant metabolism at the individual gene, system and genome levels.”

Recently he’s been leading a Michigan State research team with a $4.4 million NSF grant to “identify genes in the corn genome, work that could help breed new, more nutritious corn varieties in the future,” according to an MSU news release.

“The research will aim to identify a portion of the more than 40,000 genes in the corn genome, zeroing in on those that together work to determine the levels of five essential dietary vitamins in corn kernels: vitamin E and the four B vitamins, BI (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin) and B6 (pyridoxine). By combining approaches similar to those used in the Human Genome Project, the researchers hope to identify special variations in these ‘vitamin’ genes, and discover how to put them together to generate high amounts of vitamins in corn kernels.”

Dean DellaPenna, portrait

Dr. Dean DellaPenna {Photo courtesy of Michigan State University}

DellaPenna earned a B.S. in Biology from the College of Arts & Sciences at Ohio University, followed by a Ph.D. from the University of California at Davis.

He’s been at Michigan State since 2000, with previous posts at the University of Nevada, the University of Arizona and Washington State University.

He has served on the editorial board of the Annual Review of Plant Biology and is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

From left: Dr. Bob Goldberg, Dr. Ralph Quatrano, Stacy Welker, Dr. Dean DellaPenna, and Dr. Morgan Vis

From left: Dr. Bob Goldberg, Dr. Ralph Quatrano, Stacy Welker, Dr. Dean DellaPenna, and Dr. Morgan Vis

Igniting His Passion for Science

DellaPenna says the professor who ignited his passion was Dr. Norman “Norm” S. Cohn.

DellaPenna said that he was a first-generation college student, and Cohn did him the biggest favor of his career. Now DellaPenna involves other first-generation college students in his own lab as much as possible.

With two fellow alumni, he established the Norman S. Cohn Research Fellowship in Plant Cell and Molecular Biology in honor of their late mentor and friend. The fellowship will benefit an undergraduate student enrolled in the university with a clear academic focus on plant cellular and molecular biology. The student must be conducting research during the summer semester and have a minimum GPA of at least 3.0.

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