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A department with deep roots

Plants affect all aspects of life on this planet, from the air we breathe to the shape and color of the landscapes that we live in. They form the base of our food supply and represent an important source of raw materials for fuel, medicine, clothing, and building materials. Plants also influence climate, from the welcome shade of a tree in the summer to the global flux of carbon in our atmosphere. In short, we cannot live without plants. So it probably comes as no surprise that the history of plant research at the University of Minnesota stretches almost as far back as the University itself. In 2014, the Department of Plant Biology at the University of Minnesota turns 125, making it a good time to reflect on where we’ve been, where we are and where we are headed.

The University of Minnesota hired its first botanist, Conway MacMillan, in 1887. MacMillan aggressively lobbied the university administration for research supplies and faculty hires and in 1889 the university formed the Department of Botany. Among its early faculty, Josephine Tilden stands out. In 1895, she became the first female faculty member at the university. Tilden’s work was mainly focused on marine algae. She organized several research expeditions to Canada, Hawaii, and the South Seas and wrote prolifically about algal biology. Today the Department of Plant Biology has 27 faculty members, some with joint appointments in other departments. The Herbarium was also founded early in the department's history. In 1889, the University of Minnesota administration approved funding to buy 6,000 plant specimens from private collector John Sandberg. Those specimens seeded a collection that has been growing ever since and the herbarium remains an important resource for researchers not only at the University of Minnesota but worldwide.

The faculty and facilities of the botany department were originally scattered through several different buildings on the university campus. The department asked the university for its own building, and got its wish in 1926, when work began on the Botany Building. That building was located on the university's East Bank campus, just north of where the Academic Health Center is today. In the late 1940s and the 1950s, the department hired several new faculty members, which drove the need for a new space for research and teaching. In the 1960s, the university administration agreed on a new biosciences building on the St. Paul campus that would house both the departments of botany and zoology. At first, the plans called for the Herbarium to be left behind on the Minneapolis campus. Last-minute funding by the state to honor the late Senator Harold R. Popp of Minnesota allowed for the construction of an additional eighth floor. In 1972, the botany department and Herbarium moved into the Biological Sciences Building, where both remain today. The construction of the Cargill Building (Microbial and Plant Genomics) completed in 2002 provided additional space for plant biology faculty and their labs.

Research interests in the botany department have always kept pace with the times. During U.S. involvement in both world wars, scientists in the department made important contributions, for instance by developing sphagnum moss as a wound dressing. Following the Second World War, Professor George Burr, working together with Alfred Nier of the physics department, was among the first to use isotope labeling to trace carbon flow through plants. Work by Burr and his departmental colleague Allan Brown, laid the foundation for the later discovery of the C4 pathway, which is present in important crops such as corn. Early on the department also became committed to conservation efforts, signified by the support of the Itasca Biological Station and the establishment of the Cedar Creek Natural History Area. The current director of the Itasca Biological Station, David Biesboer, is a member of the Department of Plant Biology. The close connection to these field stations has provided researchers and students with continuous access to the amazing range of biomes present in the state.

As plant research increasingly used the tools of molecular biology in the 1970s and 1980s, new opportunities arose. New hires were made to strengthen the department’s expertise in plant physiology. In 1989, the botany department reorganized itself to keep pace with modern biology; it changed its name to Department of Plant Biology and became jointly administered by the College of Biological Sciences and the College of Agriculture. The mission of the new department was to focus on plants on all levels of organization, from molecules to ecosystems, and study them using the diverse approaches of molecular and developmental biology, physiology, systematics, and ecology. After some initial difficulties due to the loss of multiple faculty members during the 1990s, the early 2000s were another time of significant growth for the department, driven largely by hires in the area of genomics, development and evolution. These additions strengthened the already present expertise in molecular biology and organismal biology while focusing the department towards newly developing fields. Recent hires have further expanded the research scope of the department to include systems and computational biology as well as broadened core expertise in fungal biology.

This is an exciting time for the Department of Plant Biology. Faculty are well positioned to tackle both interesting questions in biology and important societal problems, which will undoubtedly result in novel discoveries and breakthroughs. Expertise ranging from molecules to ecosystems provides a broad and deep basis for this type of transformational work. Importantly, faculty composition is well balanced between junior, mid career and senior faculty, forming a solid core for the future health of the department. Accompanying this faculty strength is the Plant Biological Sciences Graduate program, an intercollegiate model for vibrant interdisciplinary graduate training. Looking to the future, the Department is ready for continued growth and ground-breaking work for the next 125 years!