The WCBP have never been very well organized nor given to keeping records. The early participants remember the discussions of science and even more the casual comments of some of their colleagues a good deal more clearly than they remember when or where those discussions took place.
The birthdate of the meetings has become a matter of confusion, conjecture and opinion, but there are no doubts about conception. C.B. van Niel at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove wanted a forum to discuss his brand of microbiology with his students and associates, many of which had taken part, as students or assistants, in the famous van Niel summer course at the marine station. These individuals included Ed Adelberg, Horace Barker, Michael Doudoroff, Ralph Emerson, Emil Mrak, Herman Phaff, and Roger Stanier and their students at Pacific Grove and UC Berkeley. These meetings began at an informal unscheduled frequency in the early 1940’s during which one or more gatherings were held at Robert Openheimer’s house in Berkeley, which Emil Mrak had rented while the owner was otherwise engaged at Los Alamos. The meetings became more formal after the Second World War when the number of graduate students again rose – 1946 might be the formal beginning of the WCBP meetings. The meetings continued into the 1950’s and drew a wide clientele, mostly gathering in Berkeley. Syd Rittenberg and his students from UCLA attended several times, as did faculty and students from UC Davis after some faculty transferred from Berkeley to the now comprehensive UC campus at Davis.
Then the meetings became less frequent and essentially disbanded for a period. Ralph Martinez and Eugene Rosenberg at UCLA and their students revitalized the meeting in 1962. That year it was held at Lake Arrowhead and alternated the next year at the Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove where they have since been held annually in December. Through the late 1960s, the meetings were organized primarily by the laboratories of Roger Stanier, Michael Duordoroff and George Hegeman at UC Berkeley, and John Ingraham and Jerry Marr at UC Davis. A variety of individuals subsequently served as Conference and Program Directors, including Mark Wheelis and Terry Leighton in the mid 1970s, then Ken Nealson as director for 8 years, with Paul Baumann, Barbara Hemmingsen, Mary Lidstrom, Sydney Kustu, Abdul Matin, Leo Parks, Beverly Pierson and Jeremy Thorner serving as formal program directors. In 1985, for continuity and as consequence of their proximity to Alice Henin, the conference registrar at UC Davis, Sydney Kustu and Jack Meeks became co-directors of the WCBP, serving through the 2001 meeting. The formal name, West Coast Bacterial Physiologists, came into being sometime in the early 1970’s when it became necessary to open a bank account. Mary Campos and Alice Henin, secretaries of the Department of Bacteriology at UC Davis, began serving as the conference registrars at the time of the formal naming of the group and establishment of the bank account. Alice took over as the conference registrar in 1977 and has continued her essential and highly appreciated coordinator role following her retirement from UC Davis. For several years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, prior to policy changes at the conference center, Terry Leighton provided excellent wines for the Friday and Saturday social hours which stimulated many informal scientific discourses.
In 1998, the Genentech Corporation, for whom John Ingraham has consulted on microbial physiology problems in biotechnology, elected to endow the overview lectures at the WCBP annual meetings. These overview lectures have subsequently been formally identified as the John Ingraham Lectures in Microbial Physiology, sponsored by Genentech. This continuing contribution has been instrumental in fostering communication in microbial physiology in the intimate setting of the annual WCBP meetings at the Asilomar Conference Center and in organization of special presentations at these meetings.
On five occasions, the WCBP have recognized the enduring contributions of specific individuals to microbial physiology. The first was in 1967 to honor C.B. van Niel on his 70th birthday as the inspiration for the initiation and perpetuation of the now identified WCBP meetings and for his introduction of the Delft (and his) school of microbiology to the USA. The comparative van Nielian approach was, and is, the foundation of microbial diversity, physiology, and biochemistry practiced and taught by the leading “general” microbiologists of the second half of the 20th century. Then in 1986 with support of the General Foods Corporation and Cetus Corporation, the WCBP focused a tribute to Bob Hungate for his career work on anaerobic metabolism, especially in defining the rumen habitat. Bob Hungate and Horace Barker were C. B. van Niel’s first graduate students. Both presented research progress at the 1986 meeting, along with Bob’s colleagues and/or former students Marvin Bryant, Eric Johnson, Joan Macy and Ralph Wolfe. In 1989, the WCBP focused its tribute on the achievements of John L. Ingraham, not only for his contributions to the field of microbial physiology through research and writing of textbooks, but also to these meetings. John’s colleague that presented his scientific interests at that meeting included Masayasu Nomura, P. C. Tai, Fred Neidhardt and Charlie Yanofsky. In 1996, the WCBP in turn honored the continuing contributions of Charlie Yanofsky to understanding gene expression and microbial growth. Those individuals invited to present that reflected Charlie’s approach included Ford Doolittle, Rob Gunsalus and Lucy Shapiro. In 2001, the WCBP honor Ralph Wolfe for his profound contributions to our understanding of methanogenesis and the biology of methanogens, reflecting a scientific path to Bob Hungate and, ultimately, C. B. van Niel. Overview lectures reflecting Ralph’s legacy were presented by Greg Ferry, Bill Metcalf, and Rolf Thauer. In 2005, the WCBP acknowledged the numerous seminal contributions of Dale Kaiser to microbial physiology, genetics and development in championing the Myxococcus xanthus experimental system. Colin Maniol and Mitch Singer presented overview lectures on topics that sustain Dale’s approach. They were joined by Carleen Collins and Jonathan Eisen.
Many important discoveries have been announced at the WCBP meetings in Asilomar, as, undoubtedly, have many important ideas been formulated during its social hours. Fundamental knowledge of microbial physiology is perhaps more important now in the era of genome analysis than ever before and the annual meetings of the WCBP will continue to serve as a forum for microbiologists in sharing and shaping that knowledge.
The history is based primarily on the recollections of George Hegeman, John Ingraham, and Mark Wheelis.