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Genetic Engineering Pioneer Retires After 19 Years

LAS CRUCES - Dennis Sutton recently retired after nearly two decades as the manager of New Mexico State University's Plant Genetics Engineering Laboratory.

Plant genetic engineering pioneer Dennis Sutton recently retired as manager of New Mexico State University's Plant Genetics Engineering Laboratory. Sutton did breakthrough work on plant gene transfer and synthesis. (11/11/2004) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

The lab is internationally known for its synthesis and isolation of genes from different agricultural sources. These special genes have been placed in a number of plant lines to protect them from disease and insects, or to improve nutritional quality.

"Dennis Sutton has been the man who has kept our agricultural orientation in molecular biology functioning smoothly," said Grant Kinzer, head of the entomology, plant pathology and weed science department. "He is truly an expert in instrumentation. Over the years they have had several major genetic breakthroughs, and it's been a privilege to work with him."

Sutton and former laboratory director John Kemp are recognized as true pioneers in plant genetic engineering. In 1980, they were the first scientists in the world to successfully transfer a gene from a bean plant into a sunflower plant, and have that gene trait expressed in the receiving plant.

"We were really famous for about 15 minutes," Sutton said with a laugh.

At the time, fewer than a half-dozen researchers around the world were working in the area of plant genetic engineering. A few years later there were thousands, he said.

"Today, an entire industry has been built around that initial work," Sutton said.

Another of Sutton's contributions has been the synthesis of a gene making the potato resistant to the Colorado potato beetle, a major pest. More recently, the lab's focus has turned to protecting plants from various viruses through genetic engineering.

Sutton's ties to NMSU stretch back to 1985 when he joined the laboratory. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in biology and biochemistry from Northern Michigan University.

His focus - and the most rewarding part of his job - has been working in a cutting-edge genetics field with so many close friends. "I was a little nervous when I first got here because it was so different from the University of Wisconsin where I had worked before," he said. "But I shortly found a lot of friends and a good work environment."

Sutton's involvement with the laboratory has gone well beyond the bench. He has worked closely with many graduate and undergraduate students interested in molecular biology. "I normally have had responsibility for training four or five students each semester," he said. "Many of our students have moved on to medical school."

Sutton said that he won't be 100 percent retired for several months. In the coming days, he will be working quarter-time, wrapping up loose ends on several projects and hopefully training his successor.

"After that I'll be seeing my grandkids who are scattered around the country," he said. "I'll also have a chance to do more woodworking, fishing and hiking."