University of Saskatchewan

September 16, 2014   

Biology Professor Wins Distinguished Researcher Award

March 08, 1999

Oct. 23, 1998
News Release


Biology professor Larry Fowke, whose basic research has led to promising new tools in both forest regeneration and crop biotechnology, will be presented today with the U of S Distinguished Research Award at the Fall Convocation.

The award, which carries a $1,000 prize, is presented semi-annually to a U of S faculty member who has made a major contribution to knowledge or artistic creativity.

"Dr. Fowke is one of the world's most distinguished plant cell biologists," said Dr. Michael Corcoran, U of S Vice-President (Research).

"Throughout his 30-year career, he has had a reputation for excellent and innovative work in both cell biology and biotechnology. His research program is recognized worldwide."

His basic research has advanced the world's knowledge of how plant cells divide and how they take in materials. His lab was the first in the world to isolate a particular plant membrane-bound structure called a coated vesicle and show how it takes material into cells.

Wilf Keller, research officer with the National Research Council's Plant Biotechnology Institute (PBI), said Fowke has "played a key role in the establishment and recognition of Saskatoon as an international centre for agricultural biotechnology."

Though he did not set out to do applied research, Fowke and a former research associate pioneered and patented new methods for propagating coniferous trees, such as spruce, using a tissue culture technique known as somatic embryogenesis, a type of cloning. One seed can be used to produce thousands of identical embryos which can be grown into trees. Moreover, embryos produced at different times can be dried and stored and then germinated all at once in the spring to provide cloned plants of uniform size.

University of Saskatchewan Technologies Inc. (UST), the U of S's technology transfer company, has licensed the new methods to a Western Canadian tree nursery company.

Forestry companies around the world are now racing to apply clonal propagation on a commercial scale. Synthetic production of tree embryos would be a major boon to Canada's forest industry, enabling nurseries to clone trees with desired traits such as fast growth, improved wood quality and environmental tolerances. Potentially, selected genes could be introduced into the cloned embryos, leading to trees with disease and pest resistance.

At present, Fowke's research focus is on an exciting development from his team's work on cell division. In 1997, research associate Hong Wang isolated a plant gene which produces a protein that inhibits cell division. Fowke, Wang (who is now with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada), and PBI researcher Bill Crosby co-authored an article on their findings in the prestigious journal Nature.

"This inhibitor gene has the potential to be an important biotechnology tool to modify growth and development of crop plants," Fowke says.

Fowke, who earned his undergraduate degree at the U of S and a Ph.D. at Carleton University in Ottawa, joined the U of S in 1970. He has published more than 100 papers in refereed journals, co-edited a book and written numerous reviews and book chapters, and has been an invited speaker at many international conferences.

He is quick to credit the "dedicated, bright young people" who've made major discoveries in his lab. "It doesn't seem fair that I get the credit," he says modestly.

Colleagues say his willingness to collaborate with other research agencies on campus and with international researchers is a model for the science community.

The Canadian government must not lose sight of the fact that basic research is the fundamental building block of research and development, he stresses.

"There's been a real push by the federal government towards applied research and I think that's overemphasized. It's important to do basic research. You never know what the spin-offs are going to be," he said.

For more information, contact:

Dr. Larry Fowke
Chair of the Biology Department
University of Saskatchewan
(306) 966-4400

Kathryn Warden
Research Communications Officer
Office of the Vice-President (Research)
(306) 966-2506

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