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Plant biologist elected to National Academy of Sciences

STANFORD -- Christopher R. Somerville, professor of biological sciences at Stanford University and director of the Carnegie Institution of Washington's department of plant biology, has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the academy announced Tuesday, April 30.

This brings the number of Stanford faculty serving on the academy to 103, plus an additional five affiliated with the Hoover Institution.

The academy, a private organization of scientists and engineers established in 1863 by an act of Congress, named 60 American members and 15 foreign associates as new members "in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research." Election to the academy is considered one of the highest honors a scientist can achieve.

Somerville's election recognizes his work that helped transform a relative of the mustard plant called Arabidopsis into a model system for scientific study. Currently, thousands of scientists around the world use Arabidopsis to explore various aspects of the genetic structure of plants.

Using this species, Somerville was able to shed important new light on the mechanisms that control the fluidity of plant membranes, which is an important factor in how plants respond to the stress of heat and cold. In the process he discovered a gene that modifies the nutritional quality of vegetable oils, which make up about one0third of the calories in U.S. diets. Based on his research, several companies currently are developing edible oils that are better suited to human nutritional requirements. These oils, which should appear on supermarket shelves within the next few years, are expected to reduce the risk of arteriosclerosis associated with the consumption of dietary fats.

As an offshoot of this work, Somerville and his collaborators successfully implanted genes that cause Arabidopsis to accumulate beads of a biodegradable plastic that closely resembles polypropylene in large enough amounts to have potential commercial application. Monsanto Corp. has acquired rights to the process and has a major program under way to engineer plastic-producing rapeseed and soybean plants.

Currently, Somerville's lab is using Arabidopsis mutants that exhibit abnormal patterns of cell division to study the unknown mechanisms that control the spatial orientation of plant cells during development. His group has discovered a mutation that appears to influence the orientation of the first few cell divisions following fertilization.

Somerville has served as director of the Carnegie Institution's department of plant biology, which is located on the Stanford campus, since 1993. He was born in Kingston, Ontario, and earned his bachelor's, master's and doctoral degree at the University of Alberta. He served on the faculties at the University of Alberta and Michigan State University before moving to Stanford. He has participated in various advisory panels to U.S. federal agencies concerned with plant biology, and has served on several editorial committees for leading journals in his field. In 1991 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, London.



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