From Cells to Crops, Philip Benfey Found Keys to Success in the Hidden Half of Plants

 From Cells to Crops, Philip Benfey Found Keys to Success in the Hidden Half of Plants
Philip Benfey was a professor and chair of the Biology department. (Design by Shaun King/Trinity Communications)

The Duke Centennial gives us the opportunity to reflect on people whose scholarship, behavior and reputation have not only shaped Duke as an institution, but have made a profound impact on their field of research. The late Philip Benfey, a world-renowned plant biologist, is certainly deserving of recognition. His pioneering research, leadership in scientific innovation and dedication to fostering the growth of his mentees have had an immeasurable lasting impact on multiple generations of scientists.

Before I ever met Philip, I knew him to be a giant in the field. His research program focused on elucidating the molecular mechanisms underlying root development. By focusing on the root as a model system, Philip’s lab discovered key regulatory pathways that control cell differentiation and organ development. He made multiple groundbreaking discoveries, leading to insights into coordination of developmental events across tissues and integration of internal and external cues to drive development of the ‘hidden half’ of the plant (i.e, the root).

Philip was a global leader in the scientific community. His more famous discoveries center two transcription factors — proteins that regulate gene expression — critical to understanding the molecular mechanisms underpinning root development: SHORTROOT and SCARECROW. Through the study of these two proteins, the Benfey lab advanced our knowledge of complex gene regulatory networks. SHOOTROOT is created in the central part of the root (the stele) and moves to the surrounding endodermal cells, where it interacts with SCARECROW. Together, these two proteins establish the genetic network necessary for proper root development. This work has had important implications for agriculture, particularly in understanding the need for water and fertilizer to increase crop yields under challenging environmental conditions.

This is an example of how Philip’s work has not only implications for basic science, but also on agricultural practices. His research was characterized by its interdisciplinary nature, incorporating cutting-edge imaging, genetics, systems biology and, most recently, single cell genomic sequencing. This combination led to technology advances and demonstrated how complex biological questions can be addressed through the integration of multiple disciplines.

At Duke, Philip’s influence is apparent in his drive to bridge the gap between basic sciences and translation, and in his commitment to apply basic science discoveries to real-world challenges. His entrepreneurial spirit led him to found several companies, each of which focused on the development of plant traits to improve crop yields.

With his mentees, Philip fostered an environment that encouraged complex biological questions to be addressed through the integration of scientific disciplines, pushing the boundaries of what is known. He was a driving force in creating Duke’s Center for Systems Biology, which has resulted in Duke being viewed as a leader in the use of quantitative approaches in biological problems. This center laid the groundwork for the emergence of the Duke Center for Quantitative BioDesign and the Duke Center for Quantitative Living Systems.

Philip mentored countless students and postdoctoral scholars, many of whom are now leaders in their own right. He was known for encouraging critical thinking and interdisciplinary collaboration in his mentees. Many continued to seek his advice on difficult problems long after they had left the umbrella of his lab.

I moved my lab to Duke in July 2020, which was certainly a difficult time to integrate into a new environment. Once COVID restrictions were lifted, Philip arranged for regular lunches amongst the plant molecular biologists in the Biology Department. These lunches led to the creation of the Climate-Plant Innovation Center and its extension into the broader North Carolina AgTech community, called the Climate-Plant Innovation Network. Philip’s leadership, perspective, and guidance during this process were instrumental in strengthening these regional partnerships.

Philip’s profound and multifaceted contributions to Duke University, the scientific community and the lives of his colleagues have left a lasting mark. He is greatly missed.