Sussman honored with CALS named professorship

Professor Mike Sussman.
Professor Mike Sussman. Photo: Andy Manis.

Biochemistry professor Mike Sussman is the first recipient of the Salm-Bray Distinguished Chair in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS). This chair recognizes and rewards a faculty member who demonstrates exceptional cross-disciplinary scholarship and collaboration in human or animal health, and who advances agricultural and life sciences through identification and development of novel biotherapeutic compounds.

The Salm-Bray Distinguished Chair was established by Christopher and Susan Salm, both alumni of UW–Madison CALS. The name of the chair also honors the legacy of the late Robert Bray, a faculty member in the meat and animal science department from 1941 to 1984. With this distinguished chair, the Salms’ aim is to support a collaborative thinker with an aptitude for bringing together the deep expertise found in UW–Madison’s research community to develop innovations that can be applied for the betterment of humanity.

Sussman’s selection as a Distinguished Chair recognizes his pioneering work in the development and application of innovative new genomic technologies to plant biology research and research in other organisms to understand more about our world. He has made critical discoveries about the function and regulation of the plasma membrane proton pump, which provides the electrical and chemical energy gradient plant cells use to take up nutrients from the soil, move sugar from leaves to fruits and roots, and control plant cell size. He and his team discovered key proteins involved in regulating plant growth through posttranslational modification of the proton pump.

In bringing genomic advances, such as large-scale reverse genetics and new instrumentation for analyzing DNA and RNA, to plant biology, Sussman’s work has opened avenues o­f research beyond the plant kingdom. For example, he’s led collaborative teams that performed groundbreaking work with the strong voltage electric fish Electrophorus electricus and the diatom Thalassiosira pseudonana, a marine algal species.

“I want to thank CALS for this significant recognition and Chris and Susie Salm for their generosity and positive statement about the importance of innovative basic and translational research at UW as an engine for bettering mankind. This may be the first Distinguished Chair awarded by CALS, but I hope it is just the start with many more to come so that the very talented new young faulty recruited into the department and college have similar opportunities for recognition,” Sussman says. “Of equal importance, I want to thank the folks in my laboratory for the incredible science they perform day in and day out, and for their diligence, patience and care in making life at this university so rewarding.”

During his 40 years in CALS, Sussman has formed cross-disciplinary collaborations with faculty across the UW–Madison campus to explore new areas of research. With collaborators in the College of Engineering and UW Center for Nanotechnology, Sussman and his team developed an automated benchtop maskless array DNA synthesizer that provides a rapid and economical way to explore the structure and expression of genes. He co-founded Nimblegen Systems Inc. (now Roche-NimbleGen) to commercialize this technology. He is also the co-founder of Immuto Scientific, Inc., an early-stage company that uses a plasma-based instrument developed by Sussman and his collaborators in the College of Engineering to analyze the three-dimensional structure of proteins and other molecules. This technology will help protein engineers develop the next generation of antibody-based protein therapeutics.

Recently, Sussman has been applying his expertise in mass spectrometry to projects with researchers in CALS and the School of Medicine and Public Health. They are studying the symbiotic relationship of bacteria and fungi with plants, serum protein biomarkers for human colon cancer detection, and parts of the SARS-CoV-2 RNA polymerase.

Sussman has a distinguished career of service to the university and the broader scientific community. He was a longtime director of the University of Wisconsin Biotechnology Center. He’s received a University of Wisconsin Kellett Mid-Career Award, a University of Wisconsin Vilas Associate Award, and a Class of 1933 Bascom Professorship. He’s a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and he has served as a governor’s appointee to the Wisconsin Biofuels Consortium and the Wisconsin Technology Council.

Read more on the eCALS website.