Dr. Bob B. Buchanan grew up on a farm near Meadowview, Virginia, and he built a distinguished career in California. Dr. Buchanan retires in June 2013 after serving on the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley for 50 years. During that time, he has made major discoveries in microbiology and biochemistry, published more than 200 research articles, received numerous honors and awards, taught an estimated 10,000 students, co-edited the leading textbook on plant biochemistry and molecular biology, and has been a ceaseless promoter of Emory & Henry.
Dr. Buchanan’s early work in microbiology led him to plants—and that is predominantly where the focus of his research has remained for most of the past half-century. More than 45 years ago, he was on a team of researchers who made an important discovery about the regulatory role of the protein thioredoxin (Trx), which has proven to be a mainstay in research on plants. “Trx was found to function as a part of a multiprotein regulatory mechanism that links light to the activity of key enzymes of the Calvin-Benson cycle, the series of reactions central to photosynthesis.” This finding is now a given in his area of research, but at the time—1967—it was “game-changing.”
Much of Dr. Buchanan’s current research focuses on how to utilize this information for the production of more nutritious plants – specifically grains. “We study (1) The diversity of Trx and its role in regulating the activity of target proteins in plants and microorganisms, and (2) The application of Trx to improve the quality and yield of cereals. Found in all types of living cells, Trx was first identified as an electron donor for the synthesis of the building blocks of DNA. Trx has since been found to play a regulatory role in a spectrum of processes throughout biology. The protein is also finding a place in medicine and biotechnology.”
The hope held by Dr. Buchanan and his colleagues is that they can develop a “smarter” more efficient variety of cereals that have increased yields and nutritional benefits. He sees it as an inherent challenge for a highly populated planet. Part of the challenge, he says, is not in science – it’s in public relations. “Today, the public doesn’t know a lot about where their food comes from, so when they hear discussions of genetically modified foods, they are uncomfortable.” Unfortunately, some of the misleading and polarizing news headlines about this topic have not helped researchers like Dr. Buchanan, who know that if done correctly, genetic engineering is safe and can be a boon for food production, and even allow plants to assist in biomedical needs.
Retirement doesn’t mean the end of work for Dr. Buchanan. Hardly. In fact, he will continue his research, but will also find time for some of his volunteer passions. Free of teaching and administrative duties (he has served as department chair and recently as an associate dean), he plans to spend time volunteering at a stroke support center in his community. He experienced a stroke in 1999, and would like to use his insights to help others. Last year he applied his talents to another goodwill project: making a You Tube video that clarifies the unacknowledged role of a UC San Diego colleague in important discoveries made at Berkeley in the 1940s and ‘50s (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfQQJ2vR_xE).
Dr. Buchanan also has been hard at work for Emory & Henry as he and his classmates have led the way for the establishment of a scholarship to honor former E&H faculty member Dr. Lee T. Douglas. “Dr. Douglas was a brilliant man and a fascinating teacher who was underappreciated in his lifetime,” Buchanan says. The Class of ’58 launched the scholarship in time for Dr. Douglas to know of the kind gesture, but passed away before seeing the award finalized. The scholarship is almost fully endowed now, and that good news will be announced during Buchanan’s class’s gathering at Homecoming in 2013. “In addition to gifts to the fund, it has been rewarding to read some of the wonderful comments about Lee Douglas and his memorable teaching at Emory & Henry,” he says.
In the end, Dr. Buchanan’s retirement probably won’t mean any shorter work days. But there are four grandchildren who are happy to know that it might allow a bit more time for his famous homemade pancakes and hand-turned ice cream.
An event to celebrate his 50 years is being planned to take place at UC Berkeley in the fall.