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Jean-Pierre Bourgin (1944-1994)

In 1967, as a student in Agronomy at Institut National Agronomique (Paris), Jean-Pierre Bourgin joined the group of Jean-Paul Nitsch, director of the Laboratoire de Physiologie Pluricellulaire in CNRS. Jean-Pierre Bourgin then performed a remarkable series of experiments, which has opened new research avenues in plant biology an plant breeding : he designed a procedure for in vitro culture of tobacco anthers, which allowed to obtain haploid embryos directly from pollen. The development of such haploid embryos gave rise to viable haploid plants that could be grown in the greenhouse ( the original publication was one of the most cited paper in plant biology for several years). Similar approaches have been widely exploited afterwards for the production of haploids in a variety of plant species. As haplo-diploidisation methods allow to obtain fully homozygous lines from haploid plants through chromosome doubling, such techniques are still in use in many plant breeding programs.
After this landmark work, Jean-Pierre Bourgin was recruited at the Station Centrale de Physiologie Végétale at INRA Versailles, in the "Service de Biochimie Cellulaire Végétale" headed by Georges Morel, author of several breakthroughs in plant biology, and for whom Jean-Pierre Bourgin had a profound admiration. In this very laboratory many techniques for in vitro culture of plant tissues were invented, for instance vegetative multiplication through meristem culture.

In those days, many researchers were trying to apply concepts of microbial genetics to multicellular eucaryotes. In particular, the isolation of "biochemical mutants" by applying selective screens on large populations of bacterial cells had been very successful for the study of microbial metabolism. In 1971, Jean-Pierre Bourgin started adapting such approach to plant cells. He first adopted Nicotiana plumbaginifolia as a model species for cellular genetics, this strictly diploid species being much more convenient for the isolation of recessive mutations compared to tobacco. Nicotiana plumbaginifolia was subsequently adopted by several research groups worlwide, before the era of Arabidopsis genomics.

Jean-Pierre Bourgin set up the isolation of biochemical mutants from tobacco cells by using toxic selective doses of valine. He demonstrated that an excess of exogenous valine inhibited the biosynthesis of isoleucine and leucine by feedback control, similarly to what had been observed in bacteria. Valine resistant mutants were selected from UV mutagenized protoplasts. Regenerated plants were also resistant and transmitted the trait to their progeny. This was one of the very first examples of cellular genetics applied to higher eucaryotes (Bourgin JP 1978. Valine resistant plants from in vitro selected tobacco Cells. Mol. Gen. Genet. 161, 225-230).

A period of uncertainty followed the death of Georges Morel in 1973, and the laboratory came close to ceasing its activity. However, Jean-Pierre Bourgin became director of the new Laboratoire de Biologie Cellulaire in 1976, one of the founding laboratories of the Institut Jean-Pierre Bourgin.

Under the leadership of Jean-Pierre Bourgin, this laboratory underwent profound changes in the following years. Thanks to his exceptional qualities as an organiser and scientist, Jean-Pierre Bourgin established a widely recognised excellence center for plant molecular and cellular genetics. He set up a climate of respect and confidence and many talented scientist soon joined the laboratory (Michel Caboche, Georges Pelletier, Alain Deshayes, Francine Casse-Delbart, Michel Laloue, Marc Jullien, etc). Newcomers all shared the project of exploiting new experimental opportunities in plant biology in order to tackle important fondamental and agronomical questions. The advent of plant biotechnology in the following years amply proved the legitimacy of such precursor choices. Jean-Pierre Bourgin established a very special mode of organization based on solidarity and dialog.
His colleagues, students and young scientists who stayed in the laboratory and everyone who met him remember his complex and charismatic personality. He was profoundly and sincerely modest, dedicated to his work and he always kept faith in the virtue of intelligence and communication.

The "Laboratoire de Biologie Cellulaire" in 1992


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