The Roots of the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology

In the 1980s it was apparent that the organization of biology teaching and research at Berkeley had become cumbersome and archaic: more than 250 biologists were spread across four colleges, three schools, and 19 departments. Faced with this problem was Ira Michael Heyman, a Berkeley Law School professor who had become Berkeley’s sixth Chancellor.  Serving as his Executive Vice Chancellor was Roderick Park, a member of the Botany Department and former Dean of the College of Letters and Science (L&S). The Heyman-Park administration, working with Daniel and Marian Koshland, Professors of Biochemistry, set out to reorganize the discipline. 

Prior to the reorganization, Berkeley’s biological science departments were organized along traditional organismal and professional lines (e.g., Bacteriology (founded in 1911); Botany (1890); Forestry (1913); Entomology (1902); Plant Pathology (1903); Zoology (1910)), which obscured both the modern intellectual focus on cell biology, genetics, molecular biology, evolution, and ecology, and the woeful condition of the ancient research laboratories.

Park and Heyman effected reorganization with two bold moves. First, they established the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Biology, a small group of eminent biologists outside both the Administration and Academic Senate who answered only to Heyman and Park. Second, they convened a committee of distinguished outsiders to review biology with the aim of returning it to national and international prominence. 

These committees recommended that biology at Berkeley be reorganized into far fewer departments and that state-of-the-art facilities be built. In 1989, three new departments were proposed, Molecular and Cell Biology (MCB), Integrative Biology (IB), and Plant Biology (PB).  These recommendations were welcomed by the administration but met with resistance from chairs, deans, and other senior faculty. The carrot that proved effective was the construction of two new biology buildings—the Life Science Addition (now Weill Hall) and Koshland Hall—and the complete renovation of the original Life Sciences Building (now Valley Life Sciences Building).  

Plant Biology was established in 1989 as the sole new department in the College of Natural Resources. About half the Botany faculty—Feldman, Gruissem, Jones, Kaplan, Laetsch, Park, and Taylor—moved from L&S to the new Koshland Hall. They were joined by faculty from several CNR departments: Buchanan, Malkin, and Melis from Cell Physiology; Freeling and Sung from Genetics; Staskawicz, Volkman and Zambryski from Plant Pathology; and Terry from Soils and Plant Nutrition. Two years later, PB fully embraced CNR when it hired a Cooperative Extension Specialist in plant microbial biology and GMOs, Peggy Lemaux.

In 1994, CNR followed the lead of L&S and reorganized its traditional departments, resulting in the establishment of Environment, Science and Policy Management (ESPM) and Nutrition Science and Toxicology (NTS), and the dissolution of Entomology, Forestry, and Soils and Plant Nutrition. In the process, three plant pathologists, Bruns, Lindow and Jackson, joined Plant Biology. 

The final move in the reorganization of the biosciences occurred in 1996 when Sydney Kustu and Bob Buchanan persuaded then chancellor Chang-Lin Tien to revitalize microbiology by creating several new professorships in Plant Biology, which was then renamed Plant and Microbial Biology.

Simultaneous to the reorganization at Berkeley, USDA Agricultural Research Service administrators at the Western Regional Laboratory in Albany developed a proposal to collaborate with Berkeley, and in 1987 the Plant Gene Expression Center (PGEC) was established with PMB professor Peter Quail as its first Scientific Director. PGEC scientists are PMB adjunct faculty and make essential contributions to PMB’s programs in instruction, graduate training, and basic research.