Don (Donald A.) Bryant, Ernest C. Pollard Professor of Biotechnology and professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Penn State, has been named the recipient of the Award for Basic Research from the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) for 2022. The award recognizes an outstanding scientist whose discoveries have been fundamental to advancing the understanding of the microbial world.
Bryant was selected for his application of molecular methods to study chlorophototrophic bacteria, which use chlorophylls to capture and convert light into biochemical energy. He is particularly interested in understanding aspects of light-harvesting and light energy conversion in photosynthesis in three groups of bacteria that differ in physiology and metabolism: cyanobacteria, which produce oxygen as a by-product of photosynthesis; green sulfur bacteria, which can survive only in environments where oxygen is absent; and chloracidobacteria, a group he discovered in Yellowstone National Park in 2005, which thrive in oxygen-limited environments and only use light for energy production. In the last ten years of of a career spanning six decades that Bryant has dedicated to his research, he and his coworkers and collaborators have been able to explain how cyanobacteria are able to grow at the bottom of dense microbial mats or in deep shade. By applying the knowledge gained to crop plants, their productivity could be increased by expanding their capacity to use far-red light for photosynthesis.
“It is a wonderful honor to be recognized by colleagues at the end of a long career,” said Bryant. “However, I believe this award is really a testament to the exceptional students, postdocs, and collaborators that I had the opportunity to work with over the past 50 years. It is truly unimaginable how far we have progressed since my days growing up on a dairy farm in Kentucky.”
Looking back, Bryant remarks on the remarkable similarity between his current work and the research he worked on as a graduate student and postdoc in the 1970’s. The main difference in the research is credited to improved biochemical, genetic, and molecular biological skills. “One might say that I prepared my whole career to study acclimation to far-red light, and when chance to discover this novel process appeared, I was prepared to help my students seize the moment and make the necessary discoveries,” said Bryant.
Bryant has been a prolific author during his 50-year career in microbiological and photosynthetic research, having authored more than 435 articles since 1975. Bryant’s other awards include the Charles F. Kettering Award from the American Society of Plant Biologists in 2020, the D.C. White Research and Mentoring Award by the American Society for Microbiology in 2018, and the Daniel R. Tershak Memorial Teaching Award from the Penn State Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in 2010. He was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology in 1995 and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2011. Bryant served as an elected member of the Board of Governors of the American Academy of Microbiology from 2012 to 2018, as the associate editor of Archives of Microbiology from 1988 to 1998, associate editor of Photosynthesis Research from 1988 to 1998 and editor-in-chief of the Frontiers in Microbial Physiology and Metabolism. He twice served as a member of the editorial board for The Journal of Biological Chemistry from 2005 to 2010 and from 2015 to 2020.
Bryant joined the Penn State faculty in 1981 and was appointed the Ernest C. Pollard Professor of Biotechnology in 1992. From 2009 to 2020 he held a research appointment at Montana State University, and he was a visiting professor in the Singapore Centre on Environmental Life Sciences Engineering at Nanyang Technological University from 2013 to 2018. Bryant completed a Department of Energy postdoctoral research fellowship at Cornell University in 1981 and a National Science Foundation / National Council for Scientific Research (CNRS) postdoctoral fellowship at the Pasteur Institute in Paris in 1979. He earned a doctoral degree in molecular biology at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1977 and a bachelor's degree with honors in chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1972.