Dr J R (Dick) Dickinson


A photograph of Dr J R (Dick) Dickinson
Dr J R (Dick) Dickinson
Important fundamental studies and industrial exploitation of yeasts.

Our colleague since 1983 until his early retirement in 2009, Dick will be greatly missed for his cheerful disposition and sensible advice to all. The quality of  the meticulous supervision provided to his students was legendary, firstly in the Microbiology Department of University College Cardiff, University of Wales, then in the School of Pure and Applied Biology, and finally in the School of Biosciences of Cardiff University. He was a shy man whose manner could appear a little gruff at first acquaintance (especially to students), but this belied a very kind and helpful disposition that was greatly valued by all, both undergraduate and postgraduate.

A Biological Chemistry graduate of Warwick University, Dick’s PhD provided valuable new insights on the control of the cell division cycle by cyclic AMP and GMP in a ciliate protist, Tetrahymena pyriformis, a model system that had previously provided many advances of our understanding from early nutritional studies, and of how cells grow and reproduce. Dick, working with B.E.P. Swoboda, perfected a new method of producing synchronously dividing cell cultures using a single hypoxic shock, and went on to demonstrate the importance of changing intracellular cyclic nucleotide (AMP and GMP) pool sizes in the regulation of successive cell division cycle events.

As a postdoc in the Microbiology Department at Edinburgh, Dick began to apply his experience of these basic processes of cell physiology to studies of similar events in baker’s yeast and several of the mutants available there. He was thereby initiating his life-long dedication to studies of these organisms. Yeasts (with only 6,604 genes) would seem to be rather an arcane subject of research, but in fact they have proved to provide wonderful model systems for deep understanding of cellular processes from metabolism and genetic control to the causes of human diseases and the aging processes.

In 1982 The University Grants Committee Biotechnology Initiative instigated special lectureships to promote the burgeoning opportunities provided by the utilization of the diverse activities of microorganisms for industrial processes. One of these positions was jointly allocated to UCC and the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology, but Principal Bill Bevan was easily persuaded that our College would go it alone (this was 5 years prior to merger of UCC with UWIST), and the appointments committee decided in favour of Dick in the face of tough competition. He was by far the most suitable candidate, especially as he had with Dr. D.E. Griffiths at Warwick and Drs. R.L. Baxter, R.P. Ambler, and A.S. Boyd in Edinburgh, already become familiar with the then novel techniques of probing biochemical pathways in vivo, using 13C-nuclear magnetic resonance. Indeed, for 20 years with Dr. M.J. Hewlins of the Chemistry Department at Cardiff, this approach was to yield a plethora of insights and publications on yeast metabolism. Development of membrane inlet mass spectrometry for on-line continuous and simultaneous measurement of gases was already a major programme in the Microbiology Department, and in direct combination with an early Varian XL-100 25 MHz second–hand NMR spectrometer (from Edinburgh University) enabled Dick to perfect a novel hyphenated technique for exploring effects of controlled dissolved gases (hydrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide) on fermentation rates and enzyme reactions. Allan Coughlin from Engineering worked so hard evenings and weekends with Dick to keep the NMR machine running. These two methods (but only used separately) continue to find wide applications in industrial, medical, agricultural and environmental process monitoring.

The arrival of Professor P.K. (Pab) Maitra from The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research at Bombay in 1985 provided a huge stimulus to yeast research in Dick’s group and for others in the Cardiff Microbiology Department. In addition to his great enthusiasm for cricket, Wales, and Scotch, Pab had a huge reputation for mutant isolation, and his dexterity for rapid sampling and quenching for fluorimetric assay of coenzymes and metabolites (at one second intervals) from suspensions of live cells, skills he had perfected as the first Indian postdoc in the Biophysics Department with Britton Chance in the University of Pennsylvania. Pab was already the sole pioneer, as first to isolate glycolytic mutants (with defective sugar metabolism) of yeast. He brought his culture collection with him, and Dick and his students, ably helped by his technical assistant A.S. (Tony) Williams, went on over the years to use some of these strains to publish on many aspects of yeast biochemistry, genetic control, morphology, development, and sporulation. Zita Lobo, Pab’s wife, arrived from India in 1995 with a batch of newly isolated mutants and with Dick and Carole Winters characterized them biochemically and using electron microscopy.

From 2000 until 2005, with the Cardiff plant biologists, Hillary Rogers and Dennis Francis, Dick exploited the homologies between fission yeast and Arabidopsis, thereby enabling molecular probing of plant cell division cycle control systems.

With Dr. S. Hiom, Professor Denver Russell, and Dr. Jim Furr of the Welsh School of Pharmacy, Dick helped to elucidate the modes of action of the widely employed disinfectants, chlorhexidine diacetate and cetylpyridinium chloride on baker’s yeast and two important pathogenic Candida species.

In 1993 Dick had initiated a long-term series of studies of the metabolism of branch-chain amino acids and complex alcohols and their esters  (‘fusel oils’); at low concentrations these compounds contribute to the desirable flavors of food and fermented beverages, but also responsible for food and liquor off-flavors when present to excess. Collaboration with Bill Lancashire working in the brewing industry brought a patent to Cardiff University in 1995.  Industrial scale production of yeast metabolites, and of the protein products of genetically transformed strains of yeasts (most notably insulin) has been for many years a hugely successful and commercially important endeavor. In the Cardiff microbiology labs, under Dick’s stewardship, terpenoid biotransformation by hop and lager yeasts was supported by Whitbread plc. The control of the flavour of ales was a topic researched in conjunction with the National Brewing Research Centre at Nutfield, in Surrey, and enzymatic steps in pathways of synthetic vanillin synthesis with Prof. A.rjan Narbad of  The Food Institute in Norwich. Many of Dick’s former students have established themselves as leaders in these industries.

In 1999, the first edition of Dick’s co-edited volume ‘The Metabolism and Molecular Physiology of Saccharomyces cerevisiae’, was with Professor M. Schweitzer, the then Head of Yeast Genetics at the Institute of Food Research. This highly cited book, in greatly expanded form, appeared in its 2nd Edition in 2004.  By then a sabbatical in the University of New South Wales with Professor Ian Dawes, and his annual stays as Visiting Professor with Professor M. Breitenbach at the University of Salzburg had kindled another important aspect of yeast research, the damaging roles of oxygen radical species produced by mitochondria during the aging of yeast mother cells, processes that have given many clues to higher cell defects, necrosis and apoptosis, as well as human age-related illnesses.

Apart from his research activities, Dick played a full role in undergraduate teaching, which ranged from entry-level teaching in chemistry to final-year Honours courses on biological themes. His administrative roles ranged from spells as chair of the Microbiology Teaching Group and a period of some years on the University Council. In committees he could be relied upon to speak his mind, which at times could be very entertaining, and provided a welcome touch of levity.

Dick was, above all, a devoted family man who took great pride in his two daughters Jenny and Lesley as they blossomed in their respective careers of medicine and music, Jenny becoming a GP and Lesley a teacher after a short time spent playing in several professional orchestras. After his retirement as Reader in 2009, Dick and Diane moved to the Suffolk village of Cotton, where he indulged his life-long interest in gardening and delighted in playing with his grandchildren, Charlotte, Hugo, Oliver and William whenever possible.

Dick died unexpectedly on 25 April 2017, aged 64, after a very short illness.

Many friends and former colleagues attended his funeral on 31 May, from both home and abroad.

We mourn his passing and remember him with great affection.

David Lloyd, Al Venables and Diane Dickinson