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Philip Benfey, trailblazer in plant genetics and agtech innovation, passed away

The North Carolina Biotechnology Center was saddened to learn that Philip Benfey, Ph.D., an inspiring and pioneering plant geneticist and entrepreneur, passed away on Sept. 26 at the age of 70. Benfey was the Paul Kramer professor of biology at Duke University and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator.

Using the root of the Arabidopsis plant, Benfey advanced our understanding of how cells transform from relatively undifferentiated stem cells to fully differentiated tissues. One of his key contributions was the discovery and characterization of the SARECROW and SHORTROOT genes, which encode transcription factors that help shape plant roots autonomously and non-autonomously.

"Benfey understood how innovative ideas could leave the university, which resulted in his founding three startups," said Paul Ulanch, Ph.D., MBA, senior director of focused initiatives at NCBiotech. "He was a very sharp scientist, willing to challenge ideas and question new findings, but at the same time, he was humble and wanted to hear other's opinions."

Benfey's groundbreaking work was recognized with several honors and appointments. He was an American Association for the Advancement of Science fellow, US National Academy of Sciences member, and received several inclusions in the annual Clarivate Analytics Highly Cited Researchers list, which lists researchers whose published papers rank in the top 1% of citations for their field and year of publication.

Philip Benfey, in 2002. -Photo by Jim Wallace

Moving plant biology forward
Jeff Dangl, Ph.D., HHMI investigator and John N. Couch Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, met Benfey in the early 1990s when Benfey was a young assistant professor at Rockefeller University in New York City, and Dangl was at the Max Planck Institute for Plant Biology in Germany.

"We became friends and colleagues," said Dangl. "It was the early days of the Arabidopsis Genome Initiative and the deployment of Arabidopsis as a reference species for all of plant biology. Our paths crossed at conferences and at the National Science Foundation, where we met as members of various study groups charting a new path for plant science."

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Benfey and his wife Elizabeth decided to leave NYC. Dangl strongly recommended Benfey to science administrators at Duke University, who were looking for a new biology chair.

"Philip's impact on the biological sciences at Duke over the last 20 years is very important," Dangl explained. "He was chair at a difficult time in the department's history; he was the driving force and director of the Duke Center for Systems Biology; and he led the way in the design and building of the French Family Science Center."

Dangl describes Benfey as an inspiring and effective speaker and writer. "He could deliver fantastic and engaging lectures, and he could articulate his vision of plant science," he said. "An important part of Philip's magic was his ability to define new, leading edges in plant developmental biology, develop a plan to address them, and motivate very skilled young scientists to participate in the adventure of discovery with him."

One of the scientists Benfey inspired was Lucia Strader, Ph.D., a professor at Duke. "Philip and Xinnian Dong were instrumental in recruiting me to Duke," she said. "After I moved my lab to Duke in July 2020, Philip went above and beyond by ensuring that I was introduced to various entities at Duke and by arranging plant faculty lunches to help rebuild this community after COVID restrictions lifted."

With Benfey, Strader co-founded the Climate-Plant Innovation Network, a collective of regional partnerships focused on solving major challenges associated with climate change and its effects on crops and food using interdisciplinary research. "His deep connections throughout the region were a catalyst for forming a cohesive group, driven by his ability to promote a sense of unity among group members," said Strader.

The Climate-Plant Innovation Network resulted in a collaborative effort led by North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University to submit an NSF Regional Innovation Engines (NSF Engines) program proposal to establish a North Carolina agricultural innovation corridor. This proposal is currently under review.

Turning research into innovative technology
Benfey had a strong entrepreneurial spirit and understood the importance of translating his scientific discoveries into practical applications that could help the agriculture industry in a variety of ways. In 2007, he co-founded the startup Grassroots Biotechnology based on the RootArray microfluidics device his lab developed to visualize gene expression in dozens of roots in real-time. Just five years after its founding, Grassroots Biotechnology was acquired by Monsanto. He later launched another agricultural biotech company, Hi Fidelity Genetics, which uses data science, advanced sensors, and large-scale DNA sequencing to optimize crop root growth to increase yield.

One of Benfey's most recent achievements was the development of single-cell gene expression analysis, which illuminated the direct link between developmental subnetworks and cell expression of genes. In February 2023, this discovery became the basis of Raleigh Biosciences, which he co-founded with Ross Sozzani, Ph.D., professor at North Carolina State University. The venture is working to advance sustainable food production by providing precise control over trait expression, a critical aspect for enhancing both individual plants and the broader agricultural ecosystem.

Sozzani first met Benfey in 2006 as a visiting graduate student searching for a postdoctoral position in a plant research lab focused on systems biology. She worked in his lab as a postdoctoral scholar for five years before embarking on her own research endeavors. "Philip became a mentor for life, always just a call or a short ride away," she said. "He shared that he often adopted a 'Why not?' mentality instead of defaulting to a simple 'No.' This perspective has been a valuable lesson that I still carry with me."

Benfey was a true pioneer in embracing new technologies and driving innovation, according to Sozzani. "His findings bridged the gap between fundamental science and its practical applications in crops," she said. "His dedication to his family — his wife, Elisabeth, and their two sons, Sam and Julian — was always palpable. In essence, Philip was not only an innovator and brilliant mind but also a fantastic mentor who left an indelible mark on those fortunate enough to learn from him."


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