00:14:15 - 00:20:21 Publications
publications, lignin, fungi, radioactive CO2, university appointment, graduate students, grants, cooperative publications
Well, I was kind of wondering a little bit about the types of publications that you did, what type of content, or topics you covered in your publications? I know you said that you did about, roughly 200 or so.
That's a good question. Well, my whole career ended up being spent on how lignin is converted back to CO2 and water. And we set out looking at partially degraded lignin that had been attacked by wood decay fungi and we characterized it chemically and physically. That was the first step, the chemistry of the lignin degradation, lignin biodegradation. Then the next step was to answer the question, okay we know fungi decompose lignin, but what about other microorganisms, what about bacteria? And ended up---you can't answer that question with current, or with the techniques that were available then, so I backed up and synthesized radioactive lignin. With the radioactive lignin, carbon-14-labeled lignin, we were able to put that lignin in cultures of whatever fungi, or soil sample, or whatever. And looked for radioactive CO2, which meant that something in there was able to decompose the lignin all the way back to carbon, carbon dioxide. And with that assay we were able to, we were unable to find any bacterial decomposition of lignin, and to this day it doesn't occur even though some people say it does. We also found that in the absence of oxygen, lignin does not decay. A lot of things do of course [biodegrade in the absence of oxygen], and sewage treatment plants and all that kind of environment, landfills. So oxygen is not necessary for the decomposition of biomass, but it is for lignin [decomposition. Anyway, our studies with carbon-14-labeled lignin led to a number of publications.]
I started having graduate students from the University---I got a University appointment about 1982 in the Department of Bacteriology, and still have it, I'm now an Emeritus Professor of Bacteriology. So I was able to get graduate students, and even more importantly, I was able to get post-docs funded by grants obtained through the University. And eventually because of the radioactive lignin assay, our program attracted a lot of visiting scientists from other labs around the world. I don't know how many visiting scientists I had, I would have to look that up, but I'm sure it was at least thirty through the years. And they would stay for anywhere from one, one month to a year. The post-docs, I probably had twenty of them, and I think I was a major professor for twelve graduate students through Bacteriology.
So you ask about publications, one of the jobs of a scientist is to divide the [research] question into discrete packages so that it lends itself to getting an answer and putting a little part of the story together for publication. Scientific journals don't publish great long papers, they probably average five pages in a printed journal. I don't know how many bytes that is now. But anyway, so dividing a work up into discrete packages like that---for example, the synthesis of the radioactive lignin and demonstration that lignin degrading fungi could convert it to CO2, radioactive CO2, was a discrete package and that was a publication. A study of the chemistry of what we could learn of the chemistry by studying the degraded lignin early on in the '70s, made three discrete packages.
I published very few papers by myself. It was questioned by the Forest Service why that was the case, but nobody did, and certainly nobody does anymore, very rarely. So I worked with scientists all over the world, not just the one who were in my lab, but we would divide up one of our discrete packages, questions up, and somebody in Sweden might do half of it and I would do half of it here and we would write the paper together. And so, I probably worked with, I don't know, well over a hundred other---I mean have been well over a hundred co-authors, probably two hundred or more co-authors on these publications. And in biology it is the custom that the leader of the group put his name last on the publication, on the list of authors. Usually the graduate student goes first and then---But in biology the senior guy goes at the end and the Forest Service kept questioning me about why I wasn't senior author on any of my papers. We finally got that straightened out, because of course it wasn't just I, it was everybody in biology was doing research. So, why don't you prompt me here with another?