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Clarence “Bud’ Ryan, Pioneer WSU Researcher, Dies

Posted by struscott | October 10, 2007

Clarence A. “Bud” Ryan, a pioneer researcher in plant biochemistry and the first Washington State University faculty member to be admitted to the National Academy of Sciences, died October 7, 2007, at age 76.

Clarence "Bud" Ryan in doctoral regalia

The cause of death is believed to be a brain aneurism.

Ryan, whose career at WSU spanned more than 40 years, is internationally known for his discoveries that plants produce natural insecticides to protect themselves from predation by herbivores.

“Dr. Ryan will truly be remembered as one of the outstanding scientists and faculty members in our university’s history. This is a great loss to everyone who knew him, who worked with him and who continued to learn from him,” said WSU President Elson S. Floyd.

Ryan pioneered the study of what has come to be known as the “innate immune response” of plants. A protein chemist by trade, in the early 1970s he began trying to understand how plant protease inhibitors work. Those are natural insecticides, made by plants, which prevent insects and microorganisms from digesting plant material.

Prior to his work, plants were assumed to contain the inhibitors all the time, as a deterrent to being eaten. Ryan discovered instead that plants make the inhibitors in response to an attack. He further showed that an attack on one part of a plant sets off chemical signals that spur production of inhibitors throughout the entire plant.

“That was a huge discovery, because nobody had ever seen anything like that,” Ryan recalled in 2005. The breakthrough opened a whole new field of research in plant defenses and secured Ryan’s election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1986.

He and his students and co-workers went on to discover the first polypeptide hormone found in plants. The hormone, named systemin, amplifies the plant’s original response to an attack and signals undamaged leaves to produce protease inhibitors. In that way, the plant defends itself against further attack, in case the insect or microbe that inflicted the initial injury was just the first of many.

Ryan retired from WSU in 1999 but maintained an active research program since then. He had published more than 250 papers and articles and had at least two more in press at the time of his death.

In 2005, the WSU Board of Regents voted Ryan an honorary doctorate degree. The university had not awarded an honorary doctorate since 1995 and has awarded only four such degrees in the last half-century.

In recommending the degree for Ryan, thenWSU President V. Lane Rawlins said, “Bud has made such an impact on the world and is so much a part of the fabric of WSU that this honor seems especially appropriate. It is awarded only to those whose work is truly significant in a global environment.”

In a WSU Today article about the honor, Ryan said, “When I first came here, people wondered ‘Why there?’ Now, they think you’re lucky to be coming here.”

The rising reputation of WSU’s work in plant sciences was due in no small part to Ryan’s efforts.

“Bud Ryan was a scientist’s scientist. He accomplished more in his research program during retirement than some people do during their whole career. He loved what he did, and his enthusiasm about science was contagious, whether he was talking to students, tomato and potato producers or fellow faculty members. We will miss him,” said Dan Bernardo, dean of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences.

“Bud Ryan’s phenomenal discoveries on how plants defend themselves against insect attack, including his discovery of the first peptide hormone known in plants, has laid the foundation for an explosion in new directions for research in the plant sciences,” said James Cook, former CAHNRS dean and fellow National Academy of Sciences member. “He was among the most famous and highly respected plant scientists in the world, and did more than anyone else to put WSU on the map in the plant sciences.”

Born Sept. 29, 1931, in Butte, Mont., Ryan earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Carroll College in Helena and a master’s and doctoral degree in chemistry from Montana State University. He came to WSU in 1964 as an assistant agricultural chemist and assistant professor of biochemistry.

In 1981 and 1982, he took a sabbatical to learn more about molecular biology at the University of Washington and Harvard University. He then returned to WSU to continue and expand his research. Ryan was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1986, and throughout his career, received a long list of honors and awards from professional organizations and from WSU. Several of his research articles have been ranked among the most-cited in their discipline.

Ryan served as chair of the Department of Agricultural Chemistry from 1977 to 1980, as acting director of WSU’s Institute for Biological Chemistry from 1989-90, and was named the Charlotte Y. Martin Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and Plant Physiology in 1991.

Ryan’s wife, Pat, is employed at the WSU Cougar Card Center. He is also survived by two daughters Jamie Ryan and Jan Thrall and husband Terry; three brothers Bill, Don, & Edward Ryan; and his two granddaughters Kymberly and Haleigh Thrall. He was preceded in death by two sons, Steve & Joe Pat Ryan.

Funeral arrangements are being handled by Kimball Funeral Home in Pullman.

For an in-depth WSU Today article about Ryan, click on the following link.

To share or view comments and remembrances of Ryan, go to WSU Today’s Obituaries page, then follow the instructions at the top of that page.