Richard (Dick) Staples, a renowned plant pathologist, died on January 15 in Ithaca, New York, two weeks before his 95th birthday.
Staples worked at the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI), a plant sciences research facility now affiliated with Cornell University, for 42 years before his retirement in 1992. His PhD research focused on carbon metabolism of bean rust fungus (Uromyces appendiculatus) spores involved in infection, and he continued to work on this plant pathogen for the rest of his career.
“Dick’s big question was how cells communicate. . . . Dick was really interested in signal transduction, how genes work, how cells recognize and respond to their environment,” says Raymond St. Leger, an entomologist and biotechnologist at the University of Maryland and Staples’s collaborator. “The rust fungus is very informative about processes which are generally applicable to many other different kinds of cells . . . and that’s basically why it was his lifetime work.”
Staples and his identical twin brother Harry were born in Hinsdale, Illinois, in 1926, according to an obituary. At age 18, he served in World War II as a US Navy Morse code radio operator. He later earned his bachelor's degree from Colorado State University in 1950 and started graduate studies at Columbia University the same year—working in a lab provided by BTI—but was soon called to serve again, this time in the Korean War from 1950–1952. After returning to the university, he completed his PhD in plant biochemistry in 1957.
In his most famous work, Staples and Harvey Hoch, an emeritus professor of plant pathology at Cornell, discovered that U. appendiculatus recognizes its bean plant host through microscopic ridges on the stomata. The study, which was published in Science in 1987, demonstrated that these topographic features initiate the production of specialized infection structures and allow the fungus to colonize the plant—a “series of elegant, classic experiments” that earned them the American Phytopathological Society’s Ruth Allen Award in 1994, according to the society’s statement.
In seeking to understand how cells respond to their environment, Staples also established that physical signals detected by U. appendiculatus cells are relayed to the nucleus by the distortion of microtubules, which triggers protein phosphorylation and switches on genes, says St. Leger.
According to St. Leger, Staples’s work on bean rust fungus revealed key insights into pathogen-host specificity and cell communication that applied broadly to other organisms. Staples and St. Leger used these ideas to investigate host colonization by insect pathogens.
“He was very avant-garde, very modern; he was a synthesizer. He could bring together different technologies from many different sources. He would choose whatever technology helped him solve the particular problem,” says St. Leger. “In terms of plant pathology, he introduced all these different techniques which are now kind of commonplace: the synthesis of microscopy and molecular biology and biochemistry, putting all those different techniques together.”
For instance, in their investigation of how bean rust fungi detect host stomata, Staples and Hoch used electron-beam lithography to precisely microfabricate ridges of varying elevations. According to the American Phytopathological Society, the team were “among the first biologists to use the facilities of the National Nanofabrication Facility.”
St. Leger describes Staples as “kindly and genteel. He could forthrightly express opinions but he always did so in a very gentlemanly manner.” Because of his wartime experience, St. Leger says, “he knew what real problems were, so he could never let things get too out of context in the lab.”
Staples remained at BTI for his whole career, following the institute as it moved from Yonkers, New York, to Cornell’s campus in Ithaca. “The Boyce Thompson has a mission of benefitting humankind through plants,” says St. Leger. “[Staples] was very socially conscious, and I think his social consciousness reflected in the Boyce Thompson Institute. He cared deeply about this mission.”
According to a memorial statement from BTI’s president, Staples retired from BTI in 1992, but continued to work in Hoch’s lab at an agricultural field station in Geneva, New York, until 1999. In 1981, Staples received a Senior Scientist Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, and he was elected a fellow of the American Phytopathological Society in 1984.
Staples is survived by his wife of 66 years, Mildred, three children, and four grandchildren. His twin brother Harry died 20 years ago.
Correction (February 2): We described BTI as located at Cornell, but it is an independent research institute that is affiliated with but not part of the university. The Scientist regrets the error.