Molecular genetics specialist Malcolm Casadaban, PhD, 1949-2009

September 25, 2009

September 25, 2009

A pioneering researcher who developed what are now common techniques to study the effects of specific genes in many disease-causing organisms, Malcolm Casadaban, PhD, associate professor in the Departments of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology and of Microbiology at the University of Chicago, died at the University’s Bernard Mitchell Hospital on Sunday, September 13. He was 60 years old.

As a graduate student in Jonathan Beckwith’s laboratory at Harvard in the early 1970s, Casadaban invented a series of gene-fusion techniques to isolate specific bacterial genes, prevent them from being expressed, and analyze their functions. The tools he created there and subsequently in Stanley Cohen’s laboratory at Stanford University brought him rapid recognition as a major figure in genetic analysis. His methods have enabled scientists worldwide to study the genes responsible for much of the damage caused by various types of bacteria and develop new ways to prevent or treat infections.

"Much of what we do in my lab today, and what other people do in biology, we owe to Malcolm," said Beckwith, his mentor. "His approach was copied and altered for new purposes and is still in use today. It introduced the idea of scanning the chromosome by gene fusions, which has since been applied to many problems, including bacterial pathogenesis."

In some ways," he added, "he was the fore-runner of the new type of biologist that began to emerge in the 1980s, many of whom used their training in other fields to inspire changes and who devised ingenious techniques and technologies that fueled the tremendous advances in biology that followed."

"Malcolm Casadaban and his students at the University of Chicago continued to develop genetic tools, transposable elements for gene fusions, that transformed the way microbiologists perform experiments," said Olaf Schneewind, PhD, professor and chair of Microbiology at the University of Chicago. "There could not be a higher dividend for scientific inquiry."

Malcolm John Casadaban was born August 12, 1949, in New Orleans, La., and grew up in nearby Metairie. The oldest of seven children, he was known for his fondness for reading encyclopedias, interest in science, and lifelong fascination with living things--including germs. He caught rodents and reptiles on the levees and raised them as pets. He even nurtured bacterial cultures of local microorganisms, cultivating them on Petri dishes in his room.

In 1967, Casadaban graduated from New Orleans’ Jesuit High School, where he was a National Merit Finalist. He earned his bachelor of science in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1971. He spent the next five years at Harvard University, where he developed the techniques that launched his career while completing his PhD in microbiology and molecular genetics in Beckwith’s lab.

In 1976 he began a two-year post-doctoral fellowship in molecular genetics in Stanley Cohen’s laboratory at Stanford University, where he refined and extended those techniques. He also met and later married Joany Chou, a technician in the lab. After his post-doctoral training, he completed a two-year research fellowship in the Public Health Service at the National Institutes of Health.

Casadaban came to the University of Chicago in 1980 as an assistant professor in the Department of Biophysics and Theoretical Biology and the Committee on Genetics and never left. In 1985, he was promoted to associate professor with tenure in the newly created Department of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology. In 1985 he became a member of the Committee on Virology, which evolved into the Department of Microbiology.

At the University of Chicago he continued to refine his techniques, teach them to other researchers, and extend their applications to important problems related to the control of gene expression. He published more than 60 research papers in distinguished scientific journals and, with colleagues, filed several patents for technologies he created.

In the 1980s, he developed an interest in the genes that enabled certain bacteria to grow in very warm environments and in 1988 he and two of his former graduate students started a company, Thermogen, to develop and commercialize discoveries from this work. Thermophilic bacteria produce extremely durable enzymes with pharmaceutical, agricultural and industrial applications. The company slowly expanded to employ about 20 people, most of them scientists, and had annual revenues of about $2 million a year before it was purchased by a larger company, MediChem, in 2000, which was subsequently purchased by DeCODE Genetics.

"One of his great qualities," said Beckwith, "was that he loved to help people. In my lab, at conferences, on the phone--he tutored people in the intricacies of his strains that were so useful."

"Watching Malcolm’s transition from a creative young graduate student with more ideas than he could implement to a thoughtful, rigorous, mature and highly original scientist who for three decades has been a major contributor to the filed of genetics has been one of the joys of my scientific career," wrote Stanley Cohen, his post doc advisor.

Casadaban is survived by his parents: John and Dolores Casadaban; six siblings: Kay Marlowe, Emile Casadaban, James Casadaban and Donna Lowe all of New Orleans; Adrianne Casadaban Cataline of Lafayette, CA; Annette Gabler of Summit, MS; his former wife Joany Chou of Las Angeles; his fiancée, Casia Holmgren of Chicago; and two daughters: Brooke, of Los Angeles, and Leigh, of Boston, a senior at MIT, the same school her father attended.

Both daughters described their father to a Chicago newspaper as a "brilliant" man who loved to share his knowledge of science, but who was easygoing and never boastful. "Words can’t really describe," Brooke said, "what it’s like to grow up with a genius."

A memorial service was held at the University of Chicago on September 16.

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