Roger Stanier (1916-1982) Erudite Microbiologist


Roger Stanier (1916-1982) was an erudite researcher and life-long scholar whose studies spanned many years and concerned the basic tenets of evolution and adaptation. This distinguished Canadian-born (Victoria,British Columbia) scientist first embarked on the study of microorganisms many decades ago and spent his working life as a microbiologist in the United States and later in France. Early on, he spent a period of research on bacterial metabolism and physiology with modern pioneer microbiologist Marjorie Stephenson through a Guggenheim fellowship at Cambridge University (UK). Beginning in 1947, he devoted 24 years to the University of California at Berkeley where he attained the position of professor and chairman. During his years at Berkeley, Stanier made many fundamental contributions to our understanding of the microbial world. In 1957, with outstanding collaborators, he produced what was to become the leading textbook on microbiology during his time, entitled The Microbial World. This text was subsequently published in five editions over 30 years.


Roger Yate Stanier was born to British immigrant parents on 22 October 1916 in Victoria, Canada. His father studied medicine at the University of Toronto and later established a private practice in diagnostic radiology. His mother, a teacher, studied English literature at the University of Cambridge. At the age of 15, Stanier enrolled at the local junior college, Victoria College, where he studied biology, literature, and history. He subsequently transferred to the University of British Columbia (UBC) with the intention to study literature and history. His parents demurred, however, so he settled on bacteriology in order to placate his physician father, ultimately graduating with first-class Honors in bacteriology in 1936. Because he felt he had had insufficient exposure to the physical sciences at UBC, Stanier sought chemistry training at the University of Munich in 1936. As the rise of Nazism poisoned the environment at the university, he cut short his studies there and decided to attend graduate school in the United States. Because of the presence of his friend, Mike Lerner, Stanier chose to enroll in the Department of Bacteriology at the University of California, Berkeley, but found himself disinterested in the phage research done under A.P. Krueger. He subsequently accepted a teaching assistantship at UCLA for the 1938-1939 term. During his time at UCLA, he attended the famous summer course taught by C. B. van Niel at the Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California. His experience there drove his decision to pursue general microbiology. After receiving his M.A. from UCLA in 1939 he returned to Pacific Grove as van Niel’s student. After graduation, he worked with Marjory Stephenson at the University of Cambridge as a Guggenheim fellow beginning in 1945.


Upon his return to the United States he served a short appointment at the University of Indiana before accepting an invitation to join the Department of Bacteriology at the University of California, Berkeley, where he remained for most of his career. In 1971 he left Berkeley and moved to Paris, where he worked at the Institut Pasteur for the last decade of his life. He described the reasons for his departure as both academic and political: 1) academic disruptions amid the campus turmoil associated with the Free Speech Movement; 2) then Governor Ronald Reagan’s ouster of University of California president Clark Kerr; 3) and the election of President Richard Nixon. Along with his wife Germaine, he accepted the invitation of Elie Wollman to take over the former lab space of Francois Jacob and Jacques Monod, with the stipulation that he be allowed to work on cyanobacteria exclusively. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1978.


Stanier’s research career included a diverse variety of research problems bound by a desire to synthesize the general and specific patterns observed in bacteria into a more unified understanding of biology as a whole. Together with C. B. van Niel, Stanier was described by Carl Woese as one of the “only consistently insightful and articulate reporters of the early search for a microbial phylogeny“. Stanier participated in Bergey’s Manual Trust during its conception. He invented the technique of simultaneous adaption for the analysis of metabolic pathways.


Stanier’s work on Cyanobacteria focused on obligate autotrophy, fatty acid composition, structure of phycobiliproteins and phycobilisomes, chromatic adaptation, nitrogen fixation, and their nutrition and taxonomy. Stanier also authored an influential textbook, The Microbial World. The Microbial World played an important role in the promulgation of the concepts of “prokaryote“ and “eukaryote“ as negative definitions of Bacteria and Archea. From his early days, taxonomy was a constant challenge to Stanier and his interest in the subject drew him into the Bergey’s Manual Trust (USA) during the years of its gestation. The Bergey’s Manual Trust developed into the scholarly authority for species recognition. Roger Stanier did much for its character and content, which gave him a wide view of microbiology and his interest evolved on a broad scale. His brilliant effort to bridge the gaps in our knowledge of complex evolutionary development helped characterize the microbial world.




As with any prokaryotic organism, cyanobacteria do not have nuclei or an internal membrane system. However, many species of cyanobacteria have folds on their external membranes that function in photosynthesis. Cyanobacteria are arguably the most successful group of microorganisms on earth. They are the most genetically diverse; they occupy a broad range of habitats across all latitudes, widespread in freshwater, marine and terrestrial ecosystems, and they are found in the most extreme niches such as hot springs, salt works, and hypersaline bays. Photoautotrophic, oxygen-producing cyanobacteria created the conditions in the planet’s early atmosphere that directed the evolution of aerobic metabolism and eukarotic photosynthesis. Cyanobacteria fulfill vital ecological functions in the world’s oceans, being important contributors to global carbon and nitrogen budgets. By producing oxygen as a gas, as a by-product of photosynthesis, cyanobacteria are thought to have converted the early reducing atmosphere into an oxidizing one, which dramatically changed the composition of life forms on Earth by stimulating biodiversity and leading to the near-extinction of oxygen-intolerant organisms. According to endosymbiotic theory, the chloroplasts found in plants and eukaryotic algae evolved from cyanobacterial ancestors via endosymbiosis.


By depicting the course of evolution in terms of efficient endocytosis, Stanier directed attention to organellar structures and their eventual symbiotic relationships. He explained that the variety of cytoplasmic structures bearing color pigments actually reflected ancient evolutionary diversity. Photo pigment synthesis of free-living forms would have been preserved in the photosynthetic organelles. In time, nuclear organization prevented the evolutionary paths of cosymbionts from freely going their own way. His exceptional insight led him to appreciate the evolutionary significance of bacterial photosynthesis; it was the basis by which he traced the adaptation of organisms from anoxygenic (anaerobic) to oxygenic (aerobic) lifeforms. This produced a turning point in evolution when he realized that pigments in microorganisms played the important role of trapping energy from light. Selection in the emerging eukaryotic cell would have centered on improved efficacy of predation. He then fathomed that special relationships of microbial groups with unique physiological properties tend to occur to establish a shared opportunity for their survival.


When Stanier turned his attention to the habitat of microorganisms to explain the selective pressures in a natural environment, he was able to foresee the connection between symbiotic relationships and microbial ecology. He was concerned that real changes would not be recognizable except under authentic environmental conditions that ensured the significant connections in the microenvironment. Stanier understood that the key to change was the availability of energy and diversity of mechanisms for its generation. Roger Stanier’s intense interest in adaptation concerned multiple simultaneous adaptation in enzyme formation conceived as a systematic format at a basic biochemical level. The presence of a control mechanism was considered a stable character, which eventually showed that pathways could be regulated and that the control would in turn be conserved for this purpose in a particular biological group. He not only systematically clarified pathway metabolism, he also provided the basis on which the linkage to other biochemical pathways could be envisioned. It illustrated alternative pathways and detailed proof of microbial behavior in a particular biochemical niche.


In emphasizing evolution and adaptation, Stanier described the organic environment as consisting of both systematic and fluctuating occurrences, thus enabling organisms to move toward successive adaptation. He defined systematic variations as those that involved gradual unidirectional and fluctuating variations as short-term changes. Systematic events dealt with molding of the genotype, allowing for an organism to be selected to fit conditions of its environment in a geological time slot. Fluctuating events dealt with the change during a period of observation that was just sufficient to assess and pinpoint any pattern in those events that permitted possible selection of different genotypes. However, even with successive adaptation in nature, he recognized that any mutation could result in a disaster if it interfered with the competitive edge of an organism. Hence, an organism must retain that certain array of genes that gives it maximum fitness to ensure its environmental survival.


Photo-pigments are of great biological significance, their importance being to permit the coexistence of different kinds of photosynthetic organisms in one habitat. Their ability to absorb light from certain regions of the solar spectrum benefited the coexisting symbionts. Thus, Stanier formulated the ingredients for analyzing symbiosis according to the degree of intimacy, the balance of advantage and the extent of dependence of each symbiont. The concurrent development in genetic structure led to a more consistent gene makeup.


Roger Stanier’s approach was highly influential because he thought that the difficult questions facing biology should also include microorganisms. Stanier brought microbiology into the mainstream of the biological sciences. He became renowned for his enormous studies on the fundamentals of microbiology and related biochemistry. His pioneering research concerned enzyme adaptation, the role of pigments, the assimilation of components with regard to chlorophyll, the oxidative processes of aromatic compounds, the comparative biochemistry and evolution of microorganisms and the establishment of blue-green algae as cyanobacteria. This interest in blue-green algae stemmed from his earlier passion for taxonomy and photosynthesis, and the need to determine the distinction between prokaryotes and higher microbial eukaryotes. In the novel investigation of the blue-green algae, Stanier and his wife, Germaine, stressed structure and function relationships, receiving overwhelming substantiation from increasing microscopy studies.


Over his lifetime, Stanier received many awards and much international recognition including the Chevalier de la L?gion d’Honneur (1977), Fellow of the Royal Society-London (1978) and also Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences (1979). The year 2014 marks 98 years since Roger Stanier’s birth and 2014 notes 25 years since his passing and 57 years since the appearance of his influential text, The Microbial World, published in 1957, which resulted in five editions. Stanier was a pioneer with a life filled with a compelling constellation of events, leaving a profound legacy! Sources: Roger Stanier: Diversity as the key to a new era for biology. Perspect Biol Med 1993;37:48-54′; Josephine Accaputo-Gendron, Morris Goldner; Johns Hopkins University Press;; Wikipedia



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