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Dec. 11, 2014 Volume 36, No. 15

Internationally known plant scientist joins Missouri

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John Boyer, shown here on his family farm in Maryland, starts in January at MU as a distinguished research professor in CAFNR. Photo courtesy of John Boyer.

John Boyer is a member of the National Academy of Sciences

Growing up on a small beef cattle farm in Maryland, John Boyer always knew a little something about genetics. He could see the results in the animals the family bred. But it wasn’t until he took his first plant physiology and genetics courses at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania that he realized he could do the same thing with plants.

“That was eye-opening,” Boyer said.

In January, Boyer begins his appointment in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources as a distinguished research professor. A National Academy of Sciences member, Boyer is a plant physiologist internationally known for his research of how water, or lack there of, affects growth, photosynthesis and reproduction in plants.

Boyer’s interest in drought and grain losses also began at the Maryland farm. He recalled a particularly devastating drought in 1954, when his family almost lost their cattle herd. “It made a big impression on me,” he said.

Boyer’s farming experience instilled in him independence and self-reliance. “I found that to be of great value as a scientist. One of the things that comes from that experience is an ability to accept failure — I’ve had plenty of that during my career — but you push on and try a different approach.”

Boyer earned his doctorate in plant physiology from Duke University in 1964 and went on to work at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, Texas A&M and the University of Delaware. He developed a reputation for studying how land and marine plants absorb water. In the College of Marine Studies at Delaware, Boyer researched how plants get larger. Working with algae, he discovered the chemistry behind the process.

“It was the first complete demonstration of how the plant expands and grows,” he said. “These particular algae are evolutionarily the closest current relative to the ancestors of the land plants.” At MU, Boyer will be working with land plants, particularly corn, to see if the same chemistry applies.

Boyer retired in 2005 but was drawn back into academia when offered a chance to work with MU’s Interdisciplinary Plant Group (IPG), a community of nearly 60 researchers across MU’s schools and colleges.

“Missouri has a first-rate plant sciences program that I’ve admired for many years,” Boyer said. “It’s a group of faculty who work closely together, but it’s not just the plant science community. It’s also a full campus of skilled people, which includes a medical school.”

At the helm of the IPG is Professor of Plant Sciences Robert Sharp, who was a postdoctoral scholar with Boyer from 1981 to 1984. “I came to the states in order to work with John,” said Sharp, who is originally from England. “He is the best person in the field of plant water relations in the word and the best scientist I have worked with.”

Boyer is eager to work with Sharp and the other members of the IPG, specifically on how corn copes with drought, which fits nicely with Mizzou’s focus on food security. He will spend two months a year at Mizzou researching and participating in educational activities. The rest of the year, Boyer and his wife, Jean, will manage the family farm in Maryland.

— Kelsey Allen