Plant Scientist Highlight: Andrew Benson

This month we are featuring Andrew Benson, one of the most influential people in the discovery of the Calvin-Benson cycle. Andrew Benson came on the scene at the right time. Around the time he was born, Willstätter and Toll showed that chloroplasts absorbed CO2. After that, the hunt for the reaction of how plants fixed carbon was on.

Andrew Benson, through his early career, received extensive training in carbohydrate chemistry, starting from his bachelor’s degree at Berkley to his PhD at CalTech. Eventually he joined the lab of Melvin Calvin for a postdoc at Berkley and began the work that he is most well-known for: identification of the steps of carbon fixation in photosynthesis. From 1947 to 1954 “The Path of Carbon in Photosynthesis” papers I to XXIII were published. In 1954, the canonical cycle which is now accepted was published.

This work relied on recent advances made by colleagues. 14C, which has a much longer half life than the previously used 11C, was recently discovered. Work with Jacques Mayaudon and Sam Wildman lead to the conclusion that the “Fraction I protein” was RuBisCO and was the protein responsible for the fixation of carbon.

Andrew Benson was also responsible for the identification of ribulose bisphosphate as the CO2 acceptor as well as identification of 3-phosphoglyceric as the product formed after carboxylation. He also identified sedoheptulose 7-phosphate as a key metabolite in the cycle. Additionally, he made observations that would later be known as the initial steps in photorespiration.

Eventually the working relationship between Calvin, the head of the lab that Benson worked in, and Benson deteriorated and Benson was fired. He began work at Penn State University to identify phosphoatidylgylcerol, sulfur lipids, and sulfuric acid. Eventually he ended his academic tenure as a professor atScripps Institution of Oceongraphy. He continued adding major discoveries to a variety of biological fields including development of new chromatographic analysis, marine nutrition, marine arsenic metabolism, discover of lipid compounds, aging studies in salmon, and role of methanol in crop growth.

For more resources on Andrew Benson, check out these personal stories of discovery of the Calvin-Benson cycle (1) (2)an interview with Bob Buchanan and Joshua Wongan article by Christine Huard, and a biographical memoir

Download the graphic Benson.