Famous Scientists in Genetics - Royal Alexander Brink: A Towering Figure in the History of Agriculture and Plant Genetics

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Personal Life and Education

The Canadian geneticist Royal Alexander Brink, an important figure in the history of agriculture, is renowned for his seminal contributions to plant genetics and agricultural development. A native of Woodstock, Ontario, he was born on 16 September 1897 and grew up on a diary farm, and was educated first at a local school and then at the Collegiate Institute in Woodstock. He enrolled at the Ontario Agricultural College in 1914, took a brief break to join the Canadian Army at the outbreak of the First World War and then, owing to ill-health, left military service as he was unfit to continue. And so he resumed his studies. He graduated in 1919 in chemistry and physics.

This degree, however, failed to qualify him, as he wished, for postgraduate admission in soil sciences at Cornell University. So, after doing a milling and baking course at the Ontario Agricultural College, he worked for sometime at the Western Canada Flour Mills in Winnipeg and then, drawn back to academia, enrolled at the University of Illinois to study agronomy.

His genetics studies at Illinois University under J.A. Detlefesen led him to consider a career in plant genetics. On Detlefesen’s recommendation, in June 1921, he received an Emerson Fellowship to work on a D.Sc. degree under E.M. East at the Bussey Institute, Harvard. Here, he carried out research on pollen cultivation and on the corn waxy gene.

Receiving his D.Sc. degree in 1923, he joined the University of Wisconsin-Madison as an assistant professor of genetics. He was to remain at Wisconsin University until his retirement in 1968, and continue on as professor emeritus until his death. Most of his important research work was done here.

History of Agriculture: A Pioneer in Plant Genetics

His first step after arriving at Wisconsin University was to initiate a hybrid corn breeding program. This program was to highlight the ability of genetics to improve agriculture and had an especially positive outcome on Wisconsin’s agriculture.

An alfalfa breeding program followed next in 1926 and, by applying genetic principles, Brink and his research team created a hardy species called Vernal that could withstand winter colds and was resistant to diseases like bacterial wilt. Further research produced a variety that could be grown thrice a year and yielded a huge profit for Wisconsin farmers.

During the Great Depression, in 1932, Brink proposed using federal funds to start an agricultural lime making project. Inaugurated two years later, despite a few political hiccups, this project provided Wisconsin farmers with lime for the soil for alfalfa growing and also provided employment to over 10,000 workers.

Around this period Brink and his team were also engaged in creating a non-bitter strain of sweet clover for use as forage. They did this by crossing a forage quality bitter variety with a non-bitter strain from China, crossing the progeny with a hardier strain and then recrossing with the forage quality bitter variety. During this experiment, they also noted that eating spoiled bitter sweet clover produced a blood-clotting deficiency in animals. In 1938, they found that the chemical toxin coumarin caused the sweet clover’s bitterness and spoiling. This research later helped K.P. Link to derive the anticoagulant dicumarol from sweet clover.

Conducting research on maize, he -

  • discovered paramutation in maize
  • studied gene expression in maize pollen grain development
  • studied environmental effects on maize pollen grain development
  • studied transposable elements
  • showed the postmeiotical expression of the Wx allele in the maize pollen grain
  • studied semi-sterility in maize
  • mapped several maize mutants
  • investigated seed failure in interspecific crosses
  • showed that the endosperm played a significant role in normal seed development
  • showed that inserting a transposable element Mp in a functional P allele produced an unstable P-vv allele of maize
  • confirmed Barbara McClintock’s earlier Activator (Ac) research - he found that the Mp element was the same the Ac one.

In the course of his career, Brink was -

  • President of the Genetics Society of America (1957)
  • President of the American Society of Naturalists (1963)
  • Managing editor of Genetics (1952—57)
  • Member of the National Academy of Sciences (from 1947)
  • Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (from 1960)
  • Recipient of the Morgan Medal at an American-Canadian Genetics convention in Vancouver (August 1984)

He died on 2 October 1984. At the time of his death he was working on corn mutant lines; the report of this later appeared in the journal Maydica.




Maize genetics and breeding in the 20th century - By Peter A. Peterson, Angelo Bianchi, World Scientific, 1998