The Insatiable Curiosity of Microbiologist Eugene Nester

How the retired professor and department chair continues shaping the field — and UW Medicine.

It’s a Friday afternoon, but Eugene Nester, PhD, is still in the office. Although he’s retired, the professor emeritus of microbiology comes in regularly to review grant proposals and read up for his science discussion group — everything from math to oceanography. If he’s not in his office, you might find him volunteering at the Burke Museum, learning about dinosaurs or Native American basketry in order to answer visitors’ questions. Nester’s irrepressible curiosity has always led him to explore other disciplines, a habit that has served him well throughout a long and successful career.

A lifelong love of microbiology
Nester first became interested in microbiology in his teens, partly influenced by popular books like Arrowsmith and Microbe Hunters. “They influenced a lot of people who ended up going into microbiology by pointing out just how exciting a field it was,” says Nester.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology from Cornell, Nester was drafted into a biological warfare unit of the U.S. Army. Before his military service, he had planned to study food microbiology at graduate school in Wisconsin, but after his discharge, he decided to study genetics and biochemistry at Case Western Reserve University instead. It was there he met his wife Martha, a future elementary school science teacher.

By the time Nester finished his postdoctoral training at Stanford, they were ready for a change of scenery, and he accepted a position with the UW School of Medicine’s Department of Microbiology. “The future looked brightest here,” says Nester. “It was a relatively new medical school with an excellent microbiology department, and I felt that I could do good science here with the collegial support that the UW and the department offered.”

Throughout his career, Nester found a supportive and creative environment that welcomed interdisciplinary collaboration and his curiosity, both of which he nurtured during his years as a professor and department chair.

“Microbiology has a tremendous range of interests,” he says. “There are a lot of cross-disciplinary areas, so you have collaborations with people in biochemistry, genetics and computer science.”

A life-changing collaboration
One such partnership developed into his life’s work: the bacterium Agrobacterium.

It began when Nester’s curiosity turned to crown gall disease — specifically, how Agrobacterium caused the disease. Crown gall is caused by Agrobacterium infecting the plant, but killing the Agrobacterium doesn’t cure the disease.

“After a day or so, you could kill the Agrobacterium, but the disease would continue anyway,” says Nester. “So what is the mechanism by which it causes disease?”

Nester teamed up with biochemist Milt Gordon, PhD, and molecular geneticist Mary-Dell Chilton, PhD ’71. They discovered that Agrobacterium transferred and inserted its own DNA into the plant’s cell, becoming part of the plant’s genome. And, by adding DNA from other organisms to the transferred DNA, researchers could genetically modify the host plant.

It was the first step forward in the genetic engineering of plants. Their discovery would have an enormous impact on the ability to genetically modify plants for decades to come — both in scientific research and at the grocery store.

“The three of us combined had the expertise,” says Nester. “None of us singly could have done it, for sure. In addition, our research program was greatly enhanced by an amazing group of collegial undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral trainees, most of whom have gone on to successful scientific careers.”

It’s that type of interdisciplinary cross-fertilization, agrees his wife, Martha, that they appreciated so much during his career and that they want to continue to encourage.

That’s why the Nesters decided to make a very special gift to the Department of Microbiology: an endowed professorship. They hope that their newly created endowment will help the department attract and retain top faculty with a commitment to cross-collaboration.

“It’s an outstanding department, and we wanted to help build on the quality that is already here,” says Nester. “Excellent faculty will attract outstanding grad students and postdocs.”

And, of course, excellent collaborations.

Publication Date: 

Monday, March 16, 2020