Alma Joslyn

Have you ever wondered how golf courses maintain their pristine green lawns? You might be surprised to learn that a chemical known as cycloheximide was not only used as an anti-fungal agent for golf courses and fruit orchards, but it has now moved to the benches of modern-day scientists as a useful tool for conducting molecular biology research. We have U.S. mycologist Alma Joslyn Whiffen-Barksdale, PhD to thank for the discovery of this interesting chemical.

Whiffen-Barksdale was born in Hammonton, New Jersey on October 25th 1916. She attended Maryville College in Tennessee where she earned her A.B. (1937), and then moved to the University of North Carolina where she earned a Master’s in Botany (1939) and PhD in Botany and Mycology (1941) under a Carnegie Fellowship (1941-1942). She conducted postdoctoral research in the laboratory of mycologist John N. Couch, PhD before becoming a National Research Council Fellow at Harvard University in the laboratory of botanist and mycologist William H. Weston, PhD – the first president of the Mycological Society of America. Her graduate and postdoctoral studies focused primarily on the cytology, nutrition, and taxonomy of aquatic fungi, specifically oomycetes and chytridiomycetes. She developed improved methods for isolating, purifying, and culturing nine genera of lower aquatic phyla, and also characterized a previously unknown sexual life cycle in an order of aquatic parasites known as Blastocladiomycota.

It was during her tenure as a professional mycologist in the Department of Antibiotic Research of the Upjohn Company of Kalamazoo, Michigan that Whiffen-Barksdale discovered cycloheximide. Although cycloheximide is decreasing in popularity as a fungicide due to human health concerns, it has remained a staple in molecular biology research where it is used to study the half-life of proteins. She derived cycloheximide from Streptomyces griseus, and it was later determined that cycloheximide powerfully inhibits eukaryotic protein synthesis by interfering with the movement of tRNA molecules on the mRNA-ribosomal complex.

In 1951, Whiffen-Barksdale became a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow at Stanford University in the laboratory of C. B. Van Niel, who made key discoveries to explain the chemistry behind photosynthesis. There she met Lane Barksdale, PhD, her husband of 30 years who was most known for studying ways to combat infections from diphtheria and leprosy. They both went on to spend a year as fellows of the Pasteur Institute of Paris.

After her time in Paris, Whiffen-Barksdale returned to the U.S. to become a Research Associate at the New York Botanical Garden where she would spend the last 20 years of her scientific career. She confirmed and further developed the work of John Raper, PhD on sexual reproduction in the filamentous water mold Achlya; she both confirmed the structure and function of a steroid called antheridiol that is secreted by female strains A. bisexualis and A. ambisexualis to induce antheridia (or male sex organ) formation in Achlya. By the time her failing health forced her to retire in 1975, Whiffen-Barksdale had worked her way up to become Senior Botanist at the New York Botanical Garden. 

Whiffen-Barksdale published over 30 papers on Achlya and other aquatic fungi over the course of her career. Additionally, she served on the editorial board (1949-59) and later became review editor (1969) of the journal Mycologia, and was later appointed Secretary-Treasurer of the Mycological Society of America (1971-73). She died on July 5th 1981.

Entry courtesy of Nicole Sivetz

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