UC Berkeley professor emeritus, distinguished microbiologist dies at 71

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UC Berkeley professor emeritus Sydney Kustu, a distinguished microbiologist, died March 18 at the Berkeley City Club. She was 71.

Considered a pioneer and expert in the field of bacterial gene expression, Kustu was a professor of microbiology, immunology and plant pathology at UC Berkeley from 1986 until she retired in 2010. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, Kustu is remembered for her intensity and passion both in her research and mentorship.

After postdoctoral work at UC Berkeley in biochemistry and bacterial genetics, Kustu became a professor of bacteriology at UC Davis before returning to UC Berkeley in 1986. She was a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“She was driven to understand the ways in which cells adapted to their surroundings, and she was expert at using the elegant tools of bacterial genetics to tease out the important genes and proteins involved,” said David Popham, a former graduate student in Kustu’s lab, in an email.

Kustu studied the response of intestinal bacteria to nitrogen deprivation, discovering the Rut pathway, a process by which E. coli make nitrogen available for assimilation. Her work in the nitrogen chemistry of bacteria led her lab to find that Rh proteins — found on the membranes of red blood cells — probably help humans dispose of carbon dioxide and maintain a neutral pH, with implications for understanding human breathing and kidney function.

Throughout her life, Kustu remained dedicated to science, her “higher calling,” according to Popham. She insisted on teaching her graduate students not just microbiology, but also how to write “an incredibly tightly reasoned scientific article,” according to Andy Wedel, who worked in Kustu’s lab as a graduate student.

“She was unusually gifted at science and at the practice of science — knowing how to do it, knowing how to teach grad students how to do it — I think we all came out of her lab incredibly well trained,” Wedel said. “She taught me an incredible respect and humility for the data.”

Sharp in seminars as well as conversation, Kustu was never aggressive but could ask careful, penetrating questions, according to Wedel. While admitting that it was “not always easy to work with her,” Wedel added that during his time at Kustu’s lab, he had “the very best nurturing, both emotionally and scientifically.”

Though Kustu was known for being intense and willing to fight for the causes she believed in, some who knew her said she picked her battles. Aware of the political and social context of her field, she battled discrimination against women in science throughout her life — something she had experienced in her early career.

“I do science because at one time it was forbidden fruit,” she wrote in 2009. “When I was a child, men had professions; women were assistants.”

Above all, Kustu is remembered as a generous mentor and friend, dedicated to science and vibrant in conversation.

“I’m from the South, and she liked Southern literature, but she knew more about it than I did,” said Bob Buchanan, Kustu’s colleague and UC Berkeley professor emeritus. “I found her to be brilliant as a scientist and have a very unusual perspective of the arts and humanities. She was a scintillating person.”

She is survived by her son, Saul Kustu, and her sisters, Roberta Glassman and Marica Govons.

Contact Sahil Chinoy at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @sahilchinoy_dc.