Remembering Eric Conn, a Founding Father of Biochemistry and Biophysics at UC Davis
Eric Conn, professor emeritus of molecular and cellular biology, was a plant biochemist and member of the National Academy of Sciences. Conn is world-renowned in his field for his contributions to the understanding of plant metabolism, and he held tenure for 43 years with the University of California.
He is remembered as an architect and advocate of biological sciences programs at UC Davis whose leadership helped establish the academic spirit of the College of Biological Sciences as it exists today.
He passed away on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017.
Building biochemistry a home at UC Davis
From humble, small-town beginnings as a child of the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression, Conn excelled academically, earning a full scholarship to the University of Colorado at Boulder. He graduated in 1944 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and worked as an inorganic chemist with the Manhattan Project through the remainder of World War II.
Conn earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Chicago in 1948 and spent two years there as a postdoc before joining the faculty of UC Berkeley in 1950.
He came to UC Davis in 1958 to found the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics with Berkeley colleague Paul Stumpf, professor emeritus of molecular and cellular biology. Both were drawn to UC Davis due to the abundance of plant biological research conducted on campus, Conn said.
The Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics has since been reorganized and incorporated into the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology.
A dedicated instructor, Conn organized the university's introductory course in biochemistry in 1959 and taught it until 1993, when he retired as Professor Emeritus in the Section of Molecular and Cellular Biology. This course became a requirement for numerous undergraduate majors at UC Davis. Professors Conn and Stumpf also taught a graduate course in plant biochemistry during those years.
The intro biochemistry course prompted Conn to write Outlines of Biochemistry, along with UC Davis Professors Emeriti Stumpf, George Bruening and Roy Doi. Published in 1963, it became the first textbook of its kind to explore the principles of metabolism in a non-encyclopedic way.
“Professor Conn cared deeply about the teaching of biochemistry,” said Ken Burtis, former dean of the College of Biological Sciences and professor of genetics. “Generations of students, including me, benefited from his influential textbook, and from his sincere interest in helping students master the chemistry of life.”
Discovering characteristics of plant defense
Conn is best known for identifying the pathways for the synthesis of several families of important defense compounds produced by plants, which protect from attacks by pathogens such as fungi, insects and bacteria. His laboratory characterized the first step of the PAL (Phenylalanine ammonia-lyase) pathway, a “gatekeeper” in the synthesis of these compounds.
He then turned his attention to another class of compounds, called cyanogenic glycosides, which release the toxic compound cyanide, but are inactive when attached to a sugar. Conn discovered how plants detoxify cyanide and his research led to the identification of several cyanogenic glycosides, providing an understanding of the plant enzymes involved in the release of hydrogen cyanide.
As cyanide is toxic to animals and humans, Conn’s work has made it easier for researchers to test and identify the pathways in plants to breed safer varieties of foods without cyanogenic glycosides.
Later in his career, Conn sought to identify plants that contained cyanogenic glycosides, leading him to study acacia and eucalyptus species.
He became an internationally-recognized expert on acacias and took many trips to Australia to study the continent’s species, which number more than a thousand. Acacia conniana, a species he discovered, was named after him.
His work influenced understanding of acacia evolution and the presence of a cyanogenic glycoside became a tool to classify and determine relationships between different species.
Conn’s publication record includes nearly 200 manuscripts, including 28 peer-reviewed papers in the journal Photochemistry. He served as president of the American Society of Plant Physiology, as well as president, editor-in-chief, and life member of the Phytochemical Society of North America.
He received the UC Davis Academic Senate Distinguished Teaching Award in 1974 and the Academic Senate Faculty Research Lecturer Award in 1977. He also won the UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement in 1989. Conn was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1988.
Conn’s philanthropy for science
During his lengthy tenure, Conn and his wife, Louise, contributed more than half a million dollars to UC Davis. They established the Eric E. Conn Acacia Grove at the UC Davis Arboretum, among other gifts.
More than 50 species of acacias from Australia, Africa and the Americas are on display at the Louise and Eric E. Conn Acacia Grove. Samples taken from the acacia trees provided valuable data for Conn’s work on cyanogenesis.
In early spring, clouds of fragrant, golden acacia blossoms greet visitors. The Arboretum is testing these heat- and drought-resistant trees for use in Central Valley gardens.
The Conn’s endowed two student support funds for the College of Biological Sciences, the Louise and Eric Conn Undergraduate Scholarship in Biochemistry and the Eric and Louise Conn Graduate Student Award in Plant Biochemistry, both of which are awarded annually. The American Society of Plant Biologists stewards the Eric C. Conn Young Investigator Award in his honor.
Conn helped provide funds for the Paul K. Stumpf Memorial Bench and coordinated the project in honor of his friend and longtime colleague. Located in the Life Sciences Courtyard, Conn personally selected the three flame trees that are planted around it.
A mentor and friend
Conn was described as a warm and gentle scholar by Michael Dahmus, distinguished professor emeritus and former chair of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology.
“Eric was the kind of person you liked to bump into in the hallway, always positive, insightful, inquisitive and just a joy to talk with,” Dahmus said. “He was an exceptional educator and a great role model for young faculty.”
Judy Callis, vice chair and professor of molecular and cellular biology, remembered Conn as a mentor who helped co-instruct her first large biochemistry lecture.
“He was always very fair and patient,” said Callis. “He respected students. He gave me advice when needed, but also let me organize my lectures in a way that worked for me. I was very appreciative of his mentorship and guidance when I began teaching!”
Charles Gasser, professor of molecular and cellular biology, occupies the lab space that once belonged to Conn, who became Gasser’s primary mentor.
“Eric Conn provided advice on almost every aspect of being a professor, from sharing his knowledge on big subjects like how to plan and staff a research program, to small topics like where to find paper clips in the office,” Gasser said. “His kindness and knowledge were indispensable to me.”
Fellow National Academy of Sciences member J. Clark Lagarias, distinguished professor of biochemistry, applauded the leadership and kindness of Conn.
"Eric had remained a strong proponent of all staff, faculty and students of the department throughout my entire career," Lagarias said. "He also cared deeply about all people and never placed himself above others. His selflessness, humility, empathy and compassion made him an extraordinary colleague and friend. I will miss him greatly."