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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

September 23, 2005

An administrator who still loves being a scientist

by Samantha Beres

Stephen Howell made a tobacco plant light up like a firefly. He and his colleagues introduced into plants a gene from a firefly, the one that makes them glow. Pictures of it were published worldwide, including in Time, and Howell was getting some strange phone calls. A Japanese department store wanted to sell the plants as novelty items. The highway commission called to see if they could put the plants along the roadways for light.

Stephen Howell and Ping Che in a rice field

Biopharmaceuticals is one of five major initiatives of the Plant Sciences Institute. Stephen Howell (left) and Ping Che stand in a field where they are evaluating rice varieties for producing therapeutic proteins used in treating human disease. Photo by Bob Elbert.

It was 1986, a time when plant genetic engineering was in its infancy. Howell was on faculty at the University of California, San Diego, and on a career track that would lead him eventually to his current post as director of the Plant Sciences Institute at Iowa State.

Contributions to science

The glowing tobacco plant wasn't Howell's first foray into this area. In 1980, he led the first group to introduce biologically active DNA into plants, even though no one thought it could be done. The group cloned a plant virus into a bacterium and used it to introduce the virus into another plant.

"I will never forget the experiment," Howell said. "Going out and rubbing the bacteria DNA onto the plant and coming back two weeks later and seeing that the plant had been infected by the virus."

Later in his career, a student in his lab discovered the 35 S promoter. Genes are regulated to express themselves, perhaps during a specific time, or in a specific area of the plant. Promoters turn the expression on like a switch. The 35 S promoter allows a gene expression to be in the "on" position all the time. Today, the discovery is used in almost all transgenic plants.

Coming back to Ames

When Howell took the job at ISU, he was no stranger to Iowa, or to Ames.

He grew up in Ames and went to Ames High School. As a teenager, he worked for the agronomy department on a threshing crew. He did the 4 a.m. to noon shift in 100-degree heat in an enclosed building, dust flying everywhere.

"I was involved with a group of people in the plant breeding area who had a major influence on the direction of my career," Howell said.

After attending Grinnell to study biology, it was 37 years before he returned to the Tall Corn State and to Iowa State's new Plant Sciences Institute.

"It was the right time and the right place. And that's because the emphasis of plant science had turned toward the crops that make up the basis of agriculture and industry in this state," he said.

The Institute

The Plant Sciences Institute is an umbrella organization. Its nine centers focus on specific areas of plant science. The institute as a whole has a central focus on plant genomics and a goal to make Iowa a leader in biotechnology.

"I'm really a basic scientist who's heading up an institute that has some very applied goals in its mission," Howell said.

He explained that one of the greatest challenges for the institute is translating science into useful products for agriculture.

"We have 25 percent of the class A soils in the world in Iowa. A major challenge is to figure out how we can best benefit from that enormous resource and how to maintain it for future generations," he said.

"I think that people in Iowa really underestimate their impact on the world. Corn has become the world's leading crop and our emphasis in working on corn has global implications."

Science, art and people

It's almost hard to believe that Howell would have time to do anything other than direct one of the world's leading plant research facilities. But he does plenty.

He won't call himself an artist, but his lawn is decorated with sculptures he's constructed of metal and cement. He jokes that his wife wants to move because the yard is full. He also did the illustrations in an advanced textbook he authored, The Molecular Genetics of Plant Development.

At work, when he isn't in meetings or writing grant proposals, he makes time to pursue his own research.

His research lab

"I would go nuts if I weren't an active scientist," Howell said.

He and his lab team study the shoot regeneration of Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant commonly used in genetic research for its small genome, rapid life cycle, prolific seed production and ease of cultivation in small spaces.

"We all know that when you place a leaf cutting from a house plant in water, it will regenerate roots. You can take this all the way down to the cellular level," he said. "You can take a cell and regenerate it back into a plant. Out of the void comes form and how does this happen?"

Specifically, and analogous to the way stem cells form different types of tissue, his group is exploring how plants regenerate various organs. They are looking at a set of genes that communicate with one another in order to do this.

"No one knows how cells can regenerate into a complete plant," said research associate Sonia Lall, who sought out a job with Howell after reading up on his work. "But Steve is very focused on such questions."

Ping Che, lab manager for Howell, agrees. "We talk a lot about the research and we're always discussing things. And we always respect each other," he said.

Che and Lall are only two scientists of hundreds that Howell interacts with on a regular basis.

"As director of the Plant Sciences Institute, I think, largely my responsibility is working with people -- getting them motivated, bringing them together," Howell said. "I want to make sure that our scientists succeed. Not only do I want them to bring preeminence to Iowa State in plant sciences, I want to be sure the careers of our scientists are advanced by what they do."


"I'm really a basic scientist who's heading up an institute that has some very applied goals in its mission."

Stephen Howell

Stephen Howell


Born May 30, 1941, Davenport; wife Elizabeth; two grown children


  • B.A., Grinnell College, 1963
  • Ph.D., Johns Hopkins University, 1967
  • Post-doctoral studies, University of California, San Diego, 1967-69


  • Biology faculty, UC, San Diego, 1969-88
  • Boyce Schulze Downey scientist and director of plant molecular biology at Boyce Thompson Institute, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., 1988-96
  • Vice president for research at Boyce Thompson, 1997-2000
  • Director, Plant Sciences Institute, ISU, and joint appointment as professor in biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology and in zoology and genetics, 2001-present


Guggenheim fellow, 1976; author of The Molecular Genetics of Plant Development; editor-in-chief of the research journal Plant Molecular Biology; author of more than 100 research publications