One visitor really stood out last week among the many attendees at the 90th anniversary of the Boyce Thompson Institute: William Boyce Thompson, who came back from the dead to participate in the ceremony. He was, needless to say, hugely impressed with what the Institute had accomplished in the 84 years since last visiting the research facility he created.
The no-nonsense mining entrepreneur must have mellowed a great deal in his very old age because he agreed to participate in a theatrical production about his return. The script was no doubt a real eye-opener for the Magnate. How could he have anticipated that his Institute would map the genes of tomatoes and watermelons, identify a cure for cervical cancer, or help create an Ebola vaccine?
The bespectacled, balding Thompson, apparently immune to the ravages of decomposition, had to admit to a young research associate named Rachel that he didn’t know much about molecular biology, the Institute’s current main focus. “But I do know that plants are the gateway to understanding the order between life and the universe,” he intoned, referencing public pronouncements he made when launching the Institute in 1924.
The Honorary Colonel Supports Trotsky
The honorary Colonel added that he understood the political importance of a country being able to feed its own people, based on work he did for the Red Cross in 1917. The experience led Thompson to support the Russian revolution. “I saw first-hand what happens when a government can’t feed its people,” he said.
“There can’t be any political stability if you don’t have the means to feed your citizens,” he continued. “I may be the quintessential capitalist, but I knew that we should have supported Kerensky and Lennon and Trotsky when we had the chance. The need to feed people goes beyond politics, beyond government.”
“Now I can understand why you were so unpopular with politicians in the U.S.,” the cheeky research assistant retorted.
“I didn’t need them to like me,” the Magnate responded. “I needed them to trust the plants, the green plant posses the power of transmuting the sun’s energy into food — not me, not the scientists. I knew that knowledge would be useful in helping to fulfill the basic needs of 200 million people by securing food sources.”
Population Estimates Startle Magnate
Thompson was surprised to learn from the uppity Rachel, who was in the midst of conducting an experiment when the Magnate arrived, that the U.S. population was now well beyond 300 million. Well, he had been dead for 84 years, after all. But he could scarcely believe his ears when told the world’s population was expected to grow to 8 billion by 2025.
“So it’s a good thing you had those ideas about plant research,” Rachel said. “It’s 2014 and we still think a lot about the future here at BTI.”
“Wowee, 2014, 90 years up and running,” said Thompson, proud that the Institute had been viable for so long. “What would my father…”
“What?” Rachel responded.
“Let’s just say he wasn’t much of a plant man, my father.” (Truth be told, family historians still aren’t sure who was the man–William Boyce Thompson or his father, who bankrolled the son’s early investments.)
Tragically, Thompson missed an opportunity to meet with Microsoft Founder Bill Gates at the Institute. Gates, who like the Magnate has decided to use the fortune he made in business to support plant research, visited BTI only weeks before. He was treated to a reminder demonstration of how plants have sex, which on his blog he called the highlight of his trip.
Rachel provided the Colonel with an executive summary of the Institute’s major accomplishments since he’d perished. He was impressed to hear that an important herbicide, 2’4-D, was discovered at the Institute. The first herbicide to selectively control broad leaf plants, i.e, weeds, but not narrow leaf crops such as wheat, corn, and rice, it is one of the most widely used herbicides in the world.
“We must have been making millions off of farmers who need to keep their crops safe!” Thompson said gleefully.
“Actually,” he was informed, “it got patented by a competitor. In the settlement, BTI only got $380,000, when the herbicide went on to make more than $10 billion worldwide.”
“Blasphemy,” the Magnate bellowed. “How can that be true?”
BTI Straightens Out Patent Business
The Colonel was relieved to hear that Ralph Hardy, a former BTI president, eventually straightened out the Institute’s patent process. But not before 2’4-D was patented by American Chemical Paint Co. with licensing provisions for Dow Chemical Company. More recently, Dow has developed a new breed of 2,4-D-resistent corn that’s waiting government approval.
The Sleepy Hollow Cemetery resident was surprised, maybe a little taken aback, to hear that BTI had moved its facility from Yonkers to Cornell. (Was he asleep during the limo ride up from Westchester County or what? Come to think of it, how come there wasn’t a limo parked outside the building?) The entrepreneur noted that he had worked very hard to establish the original Institute, which was located across from the street from his Italian Renaissance Revival mansion, Alder Manor.
“I have very fond memories of the Yonkers facility—the sheer time and energy we put in before a single scientist was hired. We visited laboratories here and abroad. We consulted with experts. We assembled a library full of volumes from around the world. And we considered very carefully what kind of equipment and personnel we needed. I wasn’t just throwing money at the situation….I wanted to make sure our scientists were well-equipped and guarantee that their work was published promptly.”
“The place you choose for your home was increasingly urbanized, and the air pollution was damaging the plants,” the cheeky Rachel told him.
“Why not study that?” he retorted.
“We did, as part of the environmental biology program, but ideas about a new facility were already blooming.” The Institute’s leaders thought the move to Cornell would provide access to cutting-edge science and a larger pool of scientists.
“Plus, New York state provided some financial incentives,” Rachel said.
“Now that’s something I can understand,” he said thoughtfully.
BTI Researcher Does Groundbreaking Research for Ebola Cure
Assuming the newspaper is delivered to Sleepy Hollow, Thompson had probably already heard the news about another of the Institute’s former leaders, Charley Arntzen. While working at BTI, Arntzen’s work focused on editing the genes of bananas to produce edible vaccines. His thinking was that the banana was the perfect delivery system for a vaccine. Peeling the banana exposes a sterile environment.
More recently, he received a grant from the U.S. Army to develop a drug from tobacco plants to fight the Ebola virus. Though still in an experimental stage, the drug was successfully administered to two American aid workers, Nancy Writebol and Dr. Kent Brantly.
Another BTI president, Carl Leopold, contributed to the fight against diabetes and other diseases, Rachel told the Colonel. He developed a method to preserve peptide hormones such as insulin in their glassy state so that they could be pulverized into powder and inhaled by diabetics as an alternative to self-injection.
That discovery “was patented,” the lab rat told Thompson, “and has been widely applied to vaccines and insulin.”
Just then Dr. Frank Schroeder walked by, carrying some half-gallon jugs.
“Is he studying milk?” the Colonel inquired, his brow furrowed.
“No, he’s studying worms, nematodes, to understand life’s basic processes of immunity and biochemistry.”
The Colonel nodded as the assistant told him that Schroeder, during his study of insect-derived natural products, serendipitously discovered some intriguing ant alkaloids, including myrmicarins, with unique structural features.
In 1989, Rachel continued, Dr. Alan Wood made the first field release of a genetically engineered virus. He researched methods to optimize pharmaceutical proteins production using insect viruses, and to define how insects attach sugars to proteins.
“The thought was that they could stop using harmful pesticides if they would just allow the plant gene that already weakens insects to act faster,” Rachel said, noting that Wood’s work led to the creation of a company, Agrivirion, which later became part of Chesapeake PERL, Inc.
The story reminded Thompson of when Louis Kunkel was at the Institute. “He was studying yellowing disease that was destroying entire orchards. We assembled quite a team—Francis Holmes and Helen Purdy Beale.”
Kunkel’s team discovered that leafhopper insects could transmit aster yellows virus. He later found that the virus was heat-sensitive and pioneered the idea of growing plants at times of the year, or at temperatures, that destroyed the virus without injuring the plant.
That prompted another remembrance.
“Do you know whether Fred Searls forked over any of his land for research?” Thompson asked, as the pair played a game of cards, Thompson’s favorite pastime. Searls was Thompson’s mining partner who did much of the exploration work for new mines.
“He definitely did. Dr. Alan Renwick joined a forest research program spearheaded by Pro. J.P. Vite on Searls’ land in California. They did research in Texas as well. Massive amounts of pine trees were destroyed.
“The team discovered that female beetles convert a toxic element of resin to a pheromone that attracts other beetles, facilitating massive attacks on trees by attracting both sexes. The male beetles would then come and produce a compound that told other beetles to scram. And that compound [Verbenone] is now being used on trees to fight against infestation.”
Bob Granados established novel insect cell-culture lines, so-called High Five Cell Lines, that are in commonly used for recombinant protein production worldwide. His work led to the Cervarix vaccine that has save millions of lives.
But Rachel pointed out that not all the Institute’s work involves insects. Dick Staples, for instance, did pioneering work on how debilitating rust fungi enter the leaves of wheat and beans. His work led to new approaches to fungicides to protect against rust fungi, which can devastate crops, particularly in lesser-development countries.
BTI Helped EPA With Ozone Research
And for decades, the Institute ran an environmental biology program, developed by Len Weinstein, who held the title William B. Thompson scientist. “The group did significant research on how air pollution affects crops and trees,” Rachel said. “Len contributed to EPA’s work on the ambient air quality standards for ozone.”
“The EPA?” the Colonel inquired.
“Yes, the Environmental Protection Agency, a government agency protecting the environment and protecting humans.”
“A government agency, huh? Protecting the environment… protecting humans,” Thompson mused. (This development must have really caught Thompson by surprise. It’s highly unlikely that the arch-conservative Thompson would have approved of the creation of any government agency.)
“There are strong correlations,” Thompson continued, “between BTI’s research with plants and the rational design of drugs. Any principles concerning the nature of life can be established through plants and can help understand man and help in disease.”
Rachel nodded her head in agreement, noting that BTI’s current crop of more than 100 scientists are doing work on crop resistance, not only against insects, but also less than ideal growing conditions. The Institute is working on basic research into how plants respond to stress, ways plants can survive with less, and the connection between flavor and nutrition.
“Why are you here,” Rachel asked, waxing a little sentimental.
“I wanted to see the manifestation of my dying wish,” the Colonel responded in heart-felt fashion.
“Colonel, the thing you started here, it means something. What you said about plants being the gateway to understanding the order between life and the universe – that affects all of us, and it always will. I think your father would have been proud.”
“Gosh, thanks,” said the humbled Colonel as he left the stage, no doubt for a limo that was idling outside. It was probably poker night at Sleepy Hollow.