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‘Highest honor’ for renowned WSU biochemist

When John Browse grew up on an orchard in rural New Zealand, plant biology surrounded him. But he never thought about becoming a scientist until stumbling upon the field as an undergraduate at the University of Auckland.

Browse stands in front of complex-looking scientific equipment
John Browse

Little did he know that serendipity would lead to a long career solving scientific mysteries about plant genetics. His career brought him across the Pacific Ocean and, ultimately election to the National Academy of Sciences.

“I thought the call was a joke,” said Browse, a Regent’s Professor and the Charlotte Y. Martin Distinguished Professor in WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry. “Like most scientists, I regard election to the National Academy as the highest honor that you can realistically get, assuming you don’t win a Nobel Prize.”

He is one of 120 new members elected this year, with a total of only 2,512 active members in the U.S.

Browse, who joined WSU in 1988, is internationally renowned for his work in lipid biochemistry and the storage of energy in plants.

Still an active researcher into his fifth decade as a scientist, Browse’s current projects are related to vegetable oils made by plants. He’s investigating how oilseeds like soybean, canola, and sunflower store energy for the germination of seeds and how that energy can be used by humans as food and as biofuel to meet the world’s energy needs.

Browse came to the U.S. after a colleague visited him in New Zealand. They worked to discover plant genes of lipid metabolism in Arabidopsis, a widely used model plant. Browse moved to Michigan State University as a postdoctoral researcher in the mid-‘80s before joining WSU a few years later.

His genetic work unexpectedly helped uncover a mutation that prevents plants from producing seeds and reproducing.

“It was an example of where I was following a certain course and suddenly serendipity throws a curve ball at you,” he said. “I realized I was finding out something fundamentally important about a very different area of plant biology.”

His election to the Academy slightly throws off his plans to ease into retirement. He looks forward to helping fulfill one of the primary tenants of the august institution.

“Abraham Lincoln wanted an advisory body for all aspect of science related to the country’s interests,” Browse said. “There are an awful lot of difficult questions facing the world in plant biology, climate change being paramount in that. I look forward to helping answer any of those questions I can.”

The National Academy of Sciences recognizes achievement in science by election to membership, and—with the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Medicine—provides science, engineering, and health policy advice to the federal government and other organizations.

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