Jonathan Walton 1953-2018

  • Oct 23, 2018
  • Walton lab
  • Homepage Non-Feature News
  • By Christoph Benning

We are saddened that Jonathan Walton passed away on October 18, 2018 after a brief illness. Jonathan began his career at MSU in 1987, when he joined the MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory and the Plant Biology Department (at the time Botany and Plant Pathology) as an Assistant Professor. He was promoted from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor in 1992 and then to Full Professor in 1997. In 2003, Jonathan was awarded the MSU Distinguished Faculty Award. He served as President of the International Society for Molecular Plant-Microbe Interactions from 2003 – 2005 and, from 2007-2010, was the Editor-in-Chief for the society’s journal Molecular Plant-Microbe Interactions.  In 2007, Jonathan was named the MSU Assistant Director for the Great Lakes Bioenergy Center and, in 2011, its MSU Director. In 2008, Jonathan became a Fellow of the American Phytopathological Society and, in 2012, he was elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Jonathan was a pioneer and an internationally recognized leader in the study of plant-pathogen interactions. He worked on the corn pathogenic fungus Cochliobolus carbonum. Applying organic chemistry, biochemistry, molecular biology and genetics, his work has led to a comprehensive understanding of the disease syndrome caused by this fungus: production of a host-selective toxin by the fungus, the mode of action of the toxin, and the mechanism of plant resistance against the toxin. Notably, he identified the biochemical basis of the first disease resistance gene in plants. Later, he worked as member of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center on fungal cell wall degrading enzymes used for the conversion of plant lignocellulosic materials into biofuels. Most recently, Jonathan used genome sequencing to identify genes encoding the biosynthesis of cyclic peptide toxins, such as α-amanitin and phalloidin, in deadly mushroom species of Amanita, Lepiota and Galerina. He was developing novel strategies for using cyclic fungal toxins as therapeutic drugs, and just completed a book on the molecular biology of these mushrooms The Cyclic Peptide Toxins of Amanita and Other Poisonous Mushrooms.

Jonathan was an outstanding mentor and friend to many students and postdocs. He also hosted Visiting Scholars from countries around the world and was a sought after collaborator. He taught challenging graduate courses as well as large introductory biology classes. During the past three years, he was instrumental in developing the Molecular Plant Science Graduate Program at MSU and he became its inaugural director.

Just before his death, Jonathan expressed how much he enjoyed his work environment and how fortunate he felt in his job interacting with his colleagues, staff, and friends at the Plant Research Laboratory and the Department of Plant Biology.

He will be dearly missed.

Christoph Benning, PRL Director