An online global symposium celebrating “The Life and Legacy of Wittko Francke,” a renowned organic chemist based at the University of Hamburg, Germany--and a frequent collaborator with several UC Davis scientists--brought out his humanity.
Professor Francke died Dec. 27, 2020 at age 80 of complications from COVID-19.
The 29 speakers praised him as a brilliant and pioneering scientist, a dedicated teacher and researcher, a kind and loyal friend, a connoisseur of good wine and good food, and a generous—and sometimes anonymous—humanitarian. They also lauded his mentoring, congeniality, sense of humor, “keen olfactory system” and his Ping Pong skills.
“Wittko was one of the great pioneers shaping chemical ecology and the International Society of Chemical Ecology (ISCE),” said Leal, a member of the UC Davis Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology faculty and a former chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology. Francke served as ISCE president in 1989-90, and Leal in 2000-01.
Panelist and former ISCE president John Hildebrand of the University of Arizona said: “Every encounter with Wittko was unforgettable.”
Former student Jan Bergmann of the Pontifica Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, Chile, a past president of the Latin American Association of Chemical Ecology, said the scientific community lost “a very productive and passionate researcher, a great colleague, mentor and friend.”
Toward the end of the symposium, Wittko's two sons, Christian and Michael offered their remembrances. Christian disclosed that Daaks-Chemicals, a key sponsor at an ISCE annual meeting, was “a fake” business meant to disguise the real donor--his father.
Leal then announced a fundraising project for the International Society of Chemical Ecology: “The Wittko Francke's Daaks-Chemical Fund."
Leal related this week that "There was enormous support. ISCE has now received more than $23,000. In honor of Wittko, ISCE will be establishing the annual Wittko Francke's Daaks-Chemicals Memorial Lecture."
It was Seybold who introduced Francke when he was a guest speaker at a UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology seminar on Dec. 8, 2010. Images of them, along with Leal, postdoctoral scholar Zain Syed, and doctoral student Leslie Saul-Gershenz, opened the April 3rd symposium.
Among the speakers was UC Berkeley professor Dave Wood, now 90, who was Seybold's major professor.
The event concluded with chemical ecology icon Wendell Roelofs, emeritus professor of Cornell University, and his wife, Joanne, offering a toast to the late chemical ecology giant who cherished good science, good friends and good wine.
The symposium drew widespread praise.
“I received more than 40 emails from people I know very well and others I never had the pleasure to meet; they shared their thoughts about the celebration,” Leal related. “Perhaps, one comment captures the sentiment of all: ‘Contributions to chemical ecology like Wittko's are at the center of why our field is so rewarding.'”
One email was from a professor from Japan, Shigeru Matsuyama, who collaborated with Seybold. “He wrote me that he was surprised that Steve Seybold had passed,” Leal said. “He had visited Seybold and his family in Davis and mentioned he “had a wonderful time, seeing his laboratory, walking around Davis Farmers Market, and enjoying food at Guadalajara.”
Born Nov. 28, 1940 and raised in Reinbek, near Hamburg, Germany, Francke studied chemistry at the University of Hamburg, obtaining his doctorate there in 1973. His thesis: "The Aggregation Pheromone of the Bark Beetle, Xyloterus domesticus. He was appointed professor of the Institute of Organic Chemistry of the University of Hamburg in 1985 and had served there until after his retirement.
A colleague once called him "The Mozart of Molecules," which Jan Bergmann noted, "summarizes eloquently the admiration of many had for his work, which is documented in more than 450 scientific publications." Among Francke's many global honors: the 1995 ISCE Silver Medal.
Former Francke student Stefan Schulz, a professor at the Institute of Organic Chemistry, Germany, an ISCE past president, wrote on the symposium's registration page: "Even in his early years, he showed some characteristics many associates with him, such as energy, determination, imagination, and creativity. Despite several offers, he stayed his whole academic career at the University of Hamburg, where he finally became a Full Professor and served different functions, including Dean of Chemistry. He always liked to teach, which he did happily even in his later years."
Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology tweeted Dec. 29, 2020: "Wittko Francke's death is a severe loss for the field of Chemical Ecology. He was not only a great chemist, but he also had a large influence on the development of our institute being a key member of the advisory committee that set up our institute."
France was not only an "outstanding, hard-working scientist" but a "loving husband, father of two children and grandfather of four grandchildren," Bergmann wrote. "He was also a person with incredible kindness and generosity....He enjoyed bringing people together and deeply cared about his students, many of which stayed in touch with him long after they left his research group. His legacy will live on in those of us he has inspired and guided in so many ways."
Seen any gray hairstreaks, lately?
No, not on someone's head.
This is the butterfly, Strymon melinus, from the Lycaenidae family, known as the gossamer-winged butterflies.
It's an ashy gray butterfly with a white border. You'll also see orange spots on the ends of its hindwings and one on its head, in between the eyes.
One's been hanging around our fava beans, and what a welcome sight.
UC Davis distinguished professor Art Shapiro of the Department of Evolution and Ecology says on his website:
"This is one of the most polyphagous butterflies known, recorded on host plants in many families. Its most frequent hosts in our area are mallows, including the weedy species of Malva; legumes, including Spanish Lotus (Lotus purshianus), Bird's-Foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), White Clover (Trifolium repens) in lawns, Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) and many others;and Turkey Mullein (Eremocarpus or Croton setigerus, Euphorbiaceae)."
"Early spring specimens," he says, "are small and very dark with reduced red markings; 'albinos,' with the red replaced by pale yellow, occur mostly in the spring brood. There is much minor variation. Adults visit an immense variety of flowers, both wild and cultivated. They are particularly addicted to Heliotrope and white-flowered Apiaceae."
Sadly, Shapiro, who has been monitoring the butterfly populations of central California since 1972, has been seeing very few butterflies this spring in his transects. Let's hope the butterflies get back on track and give us a winning streak.
Meanwhile, check out his newly renovated website, Art Shapiro's Butterfly Site.
The event, the Eric Conn Memorial Biochemistry Games, not only memorialized a UC Davis plant biochemist, but offered “ZOOM fatigue relief” for UC Davis undergraduate students and Cardiff University students studying biochemistry, said organizer and moderator Walter Leal, UC Davis distinguished professor of molecular and cellular biology.
“They had so much fun,” said Leal, a former chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology. “Ten years from now, most of these students will be in another field and professions unrelated to biochemistry. Those not remaining in biochemistry will probably forget everything they learned this quarter. However, all students who participated will never forget this experience. In the middle of a pandemic and suffering from ZOOM fatigue, they made new friends across the pond. Eric Conn would be happy to see undergraduate students having this experience.”
UC Davis won the event, but “UC Davis had a competitive advantage because this was their second game,” Leal noted. “Everything was new for Cardiff. Additionally, the contents of our syllabi differ.”
Catherine Rodriguez, a microbiology major, captained the six-member UC Davis Team, known as the Ironic Bonds. Fellow team members: Kelly Brandt (biochemistry and molecular biology major), Jiaying Liu (biological sciences), Aly Lodigiana (cellular biology), Efrain Santos (neurobiology, physiology and behavior) and Mary Aina (psychology).
The Cardiff team: spokesperson Jessie Vaughan, and members Marianna Gisdaki, Kia Blackburn, Ellie Whitworth, Alice Pike, and Anastasia Rouchota.
The event also cemented friendships. “A student from UC Davis reached out to become an electronic pen-pal with Cardiff students,” Leal said, adding that “both Cardiff and UC Davis parents wrote direct emails indicating how pleased they were with the event.”
The deans will exchange hoodies. Also, all participants will receive certificates.
UC Davis Chancellor Gary May delivered the welcoming address. While the students were answering questions, Dr. Dean Blumberg of UC Davis Health fielded questions on COVID-19 vaccines.
Nearly 300 logged-in to see the three games: two preliminary games with UC Davis students competing for slots on the final team, and the UC Davis/Cardiff game. The Ironic Bonds defeated the Gibbs Team in the preliminary. “Every student who played on Wednesday will receive a gift card,” Leal said.
Other judges were Cardiff faculty member D. Dafydd Jones; UC Davis emeritus professor Charles Gasser, and UC Davis distinguished research professor Clark Lagarias, a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
Professor Conn also enjoyed close ties with Professor Gasser. “It was Eric who persuaded Charles, then in the private sector, to apply for a position at UC Davis,” Leal related. “Then when Charles joined UC Davis faculty, Eric gave him his lab, which he used until his retirement.”
Two Cardiff faculty members with links to UC Davis assisted with organizing the event and reading the questions:
- Mark Young, a senior lecturer, lived in Davis as a child while his father Thomas Young, taught brewing at UC Davis
- Wynand van der Goes van Naters, a lecturer, is an associate of Leal's, spanning back to when they both lived and worked in Japan. “His research is also focused on insect olfaction,” Leal said. “He was the person I reached out to make the initial contact.”
Some of the Questions Asked
Some of the questions the students answered at the event:
Question: “What is one of the ways that humans adapt to high altitudes by virtue of what happens to hemoglobin?”
Answer: “Increase production of a compound named 2,3-BPG that leads to increase delivery of oxygen.”
Question: “Which portion of the spike protein moves up and down to either evade the immune system or allow virus entry to the host cell to occur?”
Answer: “The receptor-binding domain.”
Question: “A1c is a blood test that measures your average blood sugar levels over the past 3 months. The A1c test measures the percentage of your red blood cells that have sugar-bound hemoglobin. Which ligand binds to hemoglobin as your blood sugar does, albeit in a reversible fashion?”
Answer: “Carbon dioxide”
Question: “Why can crocodiles stay underwater for such a long time without drowning?”
Answer: “Their hemoglobin binds to bicarbonate and reduces affinity for oxygen (at the tissues).”
Question: “In the so-called UK variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus the amino acid residue asparagine in the receptor-binding domain at position 501 is replaced by which amino acid?”
Question: “Why the change of a single amino acid, glutamic acid to valine, in hemoglobin leads to sickle cell disease?”
Answer: “It causes aggregation of hemoglobin due to hydrophobic interactions.”
A poll of the viewers indicated 80 percent felt “very satisfied” with the event. Due to EU regulations, the event will not be posted on YouTube for public viewing.
Professor Conn (1923-2017) was a fellow of the National Academy of Sciences. A member of the UC Davis faculty for 43 years, he was the third recipient of the UC Davis Prize for Teaching and Scholarly Achievement. Described as an excellent teacher and researcher, he received the Academic Senate's Distinguished Teaching Award in 1974 and the Academic Senate's highest honor, the Faculty Research Lecturer Award, in 1977. He won the UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement in 1989. See https://youtu.be/TdwJkcjQvbw.
Butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, spotted a female monarch butterfly at 1:35 today.
As he mentioned in his email: "So, at 1:25 p.m. a female monarch flew directly over my head, roughly 8' off the ground, near the corner of Oak Avenue and 8th Street. It was headed northeast very lazily."
Shapiro noted that Kathy Keatley Garvey saw a monarch in Benicia on Jan. 23, "so this is the second sighting known to me this year in this general area. If there are really only 3000 or fewer overwintered in the whole state, I guess we won the lottery!"
So, the count as we know it:
- Monarch butterfly, gender unknown, flying over 115 West G St, Benicia, on Feb. 23, Garvey sighting
- Monarch butterfly, a male, that the Garveys reared in west Vacaville and released on Feb. 25
- Monarch butterfly, a female, flying near the corner of Oak Avenue and 8th Street, Davis, on March 2, Shapiro sighting
Now some folks are blaming tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, a non-native, as a serious threat in the massive decline of the monarch population.
Don't blame tropical milkweed, agree Shapiro and monarch researcher David James, an entomologist and associate professor at Washington State University (WSU).
James told us in an email: "I have been involved with monarchs for 43 years, and the single, overriding thing that I have learned is that the monarch is a highly adaptable creature! It has an incredible ability to adjust to changing environmental circumstances. In Australia, it took less than 100 years to change its core physiology as part of adaptation to a different climate. Adapting to man-made environmental challenges may take monarchs a while but I believe it can happen."
"I believe that the widespread and intensive use of neonicotinoid insecticides is one likely factor behind the current monarch population decline," James says. "But even with insecticides, insects can develop resistance over generations. The few monarchs that are alive and well in California currently are the survivors, those that have beaten the perils stacked against them. Clearly, we need to try and make life as fruitful as possible for these survivors, to aid in their population recovery. These monarchs will produce progeny that are also ‘fitter' than the general population and we need to ensure that milkweed is there for them, particularly during spring in California."
"The monarch as a species is particularly good at trying different things," James points out. "Thus, while the majority of the population does one thing (like migrate and overwinter), there is always a significant subset exposed to the same environment, that decides to do something different, like not migrate. Most of these of course will die but in some circumstances, some locations, the outcome may be good, giving another option for continuation of the species, should it become necessary. We may be seeing this now with the rise in winter breeding of monarchs in warmer parts of interior California like the LA Basin and SF Bay Area. There is also evidence for the first time of breeding winter monarch survival in far southwestern Oregon."
A post on texasbutterflyranch.com touched on the native/non-native milkweed controversy. "David James takes issue with the loud and persistent claim that non-native milkweeds pose serious threats to monarch butterflies and the viability of their migrations. When asked if he thinks the technically non-native tropical milkweed poses a dire threat to monarch butterflies, James' answer was emphatic."
No, he does not. "Not at all, in fact," he told them.
You can follow David James' research and observations on his group's Facebook page, Monarchs of the Pacific Northwest at https://www.facebook.com/MonarchButterfliesInThePacificNorthwest.
On Jan. 12 James posted a graph showing "the number of observations of monarch larvae/pupae (as recorded on I-Naturalist) in the San Francisco Bay area during November/December for every year since 2015. The graph showed a huge (>5X) increase in observations in 2020 compared to each of the the previous 6 years. I have now extracted data on monarch reports for January 2021 and compared them to the previous six years (see graph below). Once again, the data show a large increase in reports of both adult and immature stage monarchs during the past month in the SF Bay area. In fact, the increase is greater than for Nov-Dec. The average number of larvae/pupae reported on I-Nat during January from 2015-2019 was 1.0. This year the number was 63. Similarly an average of 5.0 adults were reported for January during 2015-19, yet this year there were 58 sightings reported to I-Nat. Of course some of this increase can be explained by increased use of I-Nat in these covid times to report sightings, but I doubt that this explains it all. Interestingly, there were signs last January of an increase in sightings when 10 larvae and 12 adults were reported. But the numbers in January 2021 are on another level."
James' work draws such comments as "You rock, Dr. David James! Thank you for speaking common sense and not regurgitating a hard line which equates to death for the monarchs when milkweed is purposely cut and no milkweed is available for the next generation to consume! I look forward to more findings from you and your honest research reporting. Thank you so much for all you do to help the monarchs thrive not just survive!"
Meanwhile, anyone else see any monarchs flying around the Bay Area and/or in Yolo and Solano counties?
“We are planning a global event on Wednesday, March 10, with our UC Davis players challenging UK's Cardiff University,” announced organizer-moderator Walter Leal, UC Davis distinguished professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology. UC Davis Chancellor Gary May will deliver the welcome address.
The three-game virtual event, to begin at 11 a.m., Pacific Time on Zoom, will first pit UC Davis vs. UC Davis, and then Cardiff vs. Cardiff to determine the players in the championship game. The public is invited to view the event by registering here: https://tinyurl.com/dmnftsuj
“I am absolutely delighted to provide this opportunity for our students to learn biochemistry, have fun, work as teams, and build international ties,” Leal said. “Yes, remote learning is challenging, but it also creates new opportunities.”
Students comprising the Ironic Bonds Team are Catherine Rodriguez, Jiaying Liu, Kelly Brandt, Aly Lodigiani, and Efrain Vasquez Santos. The Gibbs Team: Brandon Matsumoto, Tina Luu, Yasi Parsa, Esha Urs, and Kathryn Vallejo.
The format of the game will be three questions per team, alternating one question for each team. “In the event of a tie,” Leal said, “each team will be asked one question at a time until we break the deadlock.”
The Eric Conn Biochemistry Quizzes, memorializing a noted plant biochemist known for his research and teaching, drew fundamental biochemistry questions. (See event on YouTube at https://youtu.be/Y9T9ayRXyYE)
“This time,” Leal revealed, “we will focus on a theme of protein structures, emphasizing two proteins of public interest--specifically, hemoglobin, the carrier of oxygen from the lungs to the tissues. As I said in class, this protein makes FedEx envious. It carries oxygen from the lungs to the muscles and other cells, drops the load at the destinations, and picks up carbon dioxide and protons to take back to the lungs. It is a multitasking protein. It is never idle unless a person gets COVID-19.”
The SARS-CoV-2, the virus-causing COVID-19, needs a human cell to replicate, and they get access to the cell with a protein named spike, Leal explained. “When spike binds to a human receptor called ACE2, the virus gains access to the cell, replicates, the cell is destroyed, and the mucus formed in the lungs make it difficult for oxygen to reach hemoglobin.”
The UC Davis students have been studying the structures of hemoglobin and spike, Leal related. “Let's check their knowledge.”
And, in a fun exchange, the UC Davis players will exchange university hoodies with Cardiff.
The Eric Conn Biochemistry Quizzes drew more than 300 attendees, who heard such questions and answers as:
- "Why do hairdressers use thioglycolic acid for permanent hair treatment?”
Answer: To break disulfide bridges.
- "What was Eric Conn's favorite amino acid?”
- "Why is the spike protein called a glycoprotein?"
Answer: Because it is decorated with sugar.
- "When you get ivy poisoning, where do you expect that the active ingredient (urushiol) will accumulate?"
Answer: In the cell membrane.
- "Who was the scientist at the Genome Center that came out with the idea of using papain protease to reduce saliva viscosity?"
Answer: Lutz Froenicke
(See recap on https://bit.ly/3stHa6c)