Panhandle Perspectives - May 30, 2017

Did you know? Nebraska played a major role in advancement of plant genetics and crop breeding (part 2 – Emerson’s Nebraska academic family tree

Robert M. Harveson, Extension Plant Pathologist

University of Nebraska Panhandle Research and Extension Center

Authors’s note: This story is Part 2 of a series describing the role of Nebraska students and faculty and their substantial contributions in the improvement of plant breeding and crop genetics. This part focuses on F.D. Keim and the Nebraskan ties to the academic lineage of Rollins Emerson. Read part 1 here.

This story starts with Franklin David Keim, by way of Rollins Emerson. Keim grew up on a farm near Hardy, Neb. After graduating from Davenport High School, he attended Peru State Normal (now known as Peru State College), a school designed to train elementary- and secondary-school teachers.

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He taught for several years in high schools in southeastern Nebraska before entering the College of Agriculture at the University of Nebraska, where he earned the Bachelor of Science degree in 1914. He completed a Master of Science degree in 1918, while also working as a full-time assistant in agronomy. 

During his undergraduate years Keim encountered Emerson, prior to Emerson’s move to Cornell. Emerson stimulated his lifelong interest in genetics, and encouraged Keim to pursue a Ph.D. at Cornell University.

Because Keim was now a full-time member of the faculty and did not want to give up his position in Lincoln, he made use of annual leaves and sabbaticals to complete the Ph.D. gradually, finishing it in 1927. All of his research and writing of the dissertation was done in Lincoln.

By all accounts, Keim was an outstanding teacher, always eager to identify outstanding students and assign them special tasks assisting him like grading papers and tests, or conducting research projects and greenhouse work, in the effort to spur their interest in genetics and agriculture at the academic level.  His recruiting methods were often biased toward Cornell and their plant breeding program.

Keim’s influence was so strong that he continued advising many of his protégés throughout their careers wherever they ended up. Many went on to play key roles nationally as teachers, researchers, administrators, and in industry positions.

Two of Keim’s more prominent undergraduate mentees were George F. Sprague and George W. Beadle. Both additionally attended and completed Ph.D.s with Emerson at Cornell in the plant breeding department, Sprague in 1930 and Beadle in 1931. 

Sprague and Beadle

Sprague went on to a long, distinguished and internationally recognized career as a corn breeder and geneticist with both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Iowa State University. Many students he trained afterward listed him as their primary influence and mentor. He was additionally elected into the National Academy of Sciences.

After the Ph.D. and several postdoctoral positions, Beadle went on to a brilliant career as a geneticist on the faculty of three institutions (Harvard, California Institute of Technology, and Stanford) before serving as both Chancellor and President of the University of Chicago.

While at Stanford, he teamed with the biochemist E. L. Tatum investigating biochemical genetics using the bread mold fungus Neurospora crassa as the model organism. In this system, they discovered the role of certain genes in producing enzymes that regulate biochemical pathways in cells, referred to as the “one gene-one enzyme” theory, for which they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1958.

Beadle was additionally honored in 1994 when the University of Nebraska’s Center for Biotechnology was named after him (George W. Beadle Center for Genetics and Biomaterials Research). 

Adrian Srb and Wayne Keim

Adrian Srb, son of Frank Keim’s UNL agricultural faculty colleague Jerome Srb, was inspired to pursue the Ph.D. after completing his bachelor’s degree at Nebraska.  He attended Stanford, working with Beadle in genetics. After completion of his doctorate, he took a job at Cornell in the plant breeding department.

This story comes full circle with F.D. Keim’s son, Wayne.  After completing his father’s course in genetics (and a B.S. in agronomy), he was also encouraged by his father to attend Cornell and work with Srb.

Wayne related that Adrian Srb was the individual responsible for him to seek a career in plant breeding, with an emphasis on teaching genetics to undergraduate students. Keim then spent 45 years at Purdue University and Colorado State University before retiring in 1992. Quite an impressive academic pedigree originally initiated in Nebraska by Rollins A. Emerson indeed!