Remembering Philip Benfey 1953 - 2023
NYU Biology mourns the death of our friend, colleague, and a visionary scientist, Philip Benfey, who passed away on September 26th, 2023. Philip started his lab in the Department of Biology at New York University in 1992 helping usher in a new era of scientific energy. In the 10 years Philip spent at NYU, from assistant to full professor, he established himself as a leader in the plant field, demonstrating the power of developmental genetics in Arabidopsis and then plant genomics.
One of the Benfey lab’s first seminal discoveries at NYU was the now textbook work on the SHORT-ROOT/SCARECROW pathway in Arabidopsis that is now widely researched and taught. In that work, Benfey’s lab definitively showed that plants use mobile transcription factors, travelling from cell-to-cell via conduits called plasmodesmata, to instigate formative divisions and instruct cell identities. Philip and his collaborators continued to refine this work to show that mobile microRNAs then communicate back, forming a self-organizing network that patterns the root organ. This mode of cell-cell communication has since been shown to be used by plants in many contexts outside the root.
Philip was a visionary and a risk taker, persuading colleagues to embrace approaches that were often greeted by skepticism at first. His lab produced the first organ-wide, cell-type specific transcriptome profile by combining classic plant cell culture techniques, newly generated green fluorescent jelly fish protein markers, and a tool more typically used in medical schools, the fluorescence activated cell sorter. This led to a genome-wide transcriptional map of root cells that went on to become a major resource for the plant community.
At NYU, Philip was a force for moving the university into promising, new fields and endeavors. He led the university’s initial investment in genomics technology, helped revamp the graduate program, and worked to improve quality of life, for example, successfully lobbying to establish the playgrounds at Washington Square Village.
In 2002, Philip moved his lab to Duke University, where he continued to break new ground in plant biology, including the discovery of oscillating circuits in lateral root formation that resembled the segmentation clock in animals. Philip also went on to start three companies, notably GrassRoots Biotechnology.
Philip was inducted into the National Academy of Science in 2010, was in the first cohort of plant Howard Hughes Medical Investigators in 2011, and was honored as an American Society of Plant Biologists “Pioneer” in 2022. His ability to spot opportunities, ask big questions, and follow one’s instincts was also core to his mentorship. His dozens of former students and postdocs have gone on to establish their own labs across the United States, Europe, Asia, and Australia.
Philip leaves behind his wife, Elisabeth -- the love of his life so apparent to those who saw Philip’s demeanor change when she walked into the room -- and their two sons, Sam and Julien. At NYU, those who knew Philip grieve the loss of a friend, a mentor, and a colleague, whose keen perspective and insightful observations reverberate as a source of scientific inspiration.