An alumnus’ fascination with little green algae sparked a life of research


Johnny L. Carson ’71 says he learned a lot about pond scum when he was a student at Western Carolina. In fact, as he was introduced to the little green algae that live in pond scum by biology professor Jim Wallace, Carson was fascinated to learn that the algae often were motile, possessing the ability to swim back and forth. “That was my introduction to cell motility, and little did I realize at that time that I would build a career around it,” he says now.

Carson’s first visit to the Cullowhee campus was as a 10th-grader attending a high school science fair, but he returned as an enrolled freshman in 1967. Carson said he came to campus with the idea that college professors lived in ivory towers and had little time to acknowledge lowly undergraduates, but he found that not to be the case at WCU, where biology faculty members such as Wallace, Jerry West and Jim Horton and chemistry faculty member Joe Bassett took an interest in him and knew him by name. “By the end of my freshman year, I came to admire my professors,” Carson said. “I knew they had something special and that I wanted to be like them.” By the time he was ready to graduate with honors and receive his bachelor’s degree in biology, Carson said he had “developed a profound sense that my professors did not just get up and go to work in the morning – they got up and went to a calling.”

Wallace, now a professor emeritus of biology and still living near campus, said he had Carson in a class early in his teaching career at WCU, in the late 1960s, and the teacher and student have remained friends over the more than four decades that have passed. Wallace introduced Carson to research work and recalls him being “a quiet and extremely serious student who loved nature.”

Carson went on to graduate study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he pursued his interest in cell movement and he received his doctorate in biology in 1975. He was appointed to its faculty in 1980. Carson, now a professor in the School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics and Department of Cell Biology and Physiology, and his colleagues have worked for more than 30 years to understand the cell biology, developmental biology and pathology of the conducting airways and lungs of mammals, with much of the focus being on the ciliated cells of the airways.

Carson spoke about that research as he accepted the WCU Alumni Association’s Academic Achievement Award during Homecoming activities last October. He said the ability of the algae to scurry about that he witnessed as a WCU undergraduate is made possible by “a molecular mechanism that is contained in all species,” even the bodies of humans. “Humans possess cells in several organs that have a virtually identical molecular motor to help maintain our respiratory health, facilitate reproduction and even orient our internal organs during fetal life,” he said. The research he has been involved in has shown that “everyday assaults to our bodies such as respiratory infections, air pollution and smoking impair the function of these cells.” Also, the adverse effects resulting from those assaults are most serious in children and can set the stage for the development of lifelong disease, Carson said.

Over the past dozen years, research conducted by Carson and his colleagues has allowed for the identification of about two dozen gene-based mutations involved in human disease. “Many, if not most of them, have been tracked down by their similarity to the genes in our little green algae,” he said. In particular, Carson and his colleagues have conducted an exploration of a genetic syndrome called primary ciliary dyskinesia. Carson also has been actively engaged in the development and activities of the Primary Ciliary Dyskinesia Foundation, a voluntary health organization for families affected by the disease.

Carson told the audience at the fall awards ceremony that being a student at Western Carolina was the “watershed moment” in his life. In addition to firing his academic interests and career, his time as a student also allowed him to meet his wife, Shirley Freel Carson ’72. They have two children, Bradley and Rebecca. “If someone had told me 40 years ago that my academic journey would take the route that it has, I’m sure I would have found their comment amusing, if not laughable,” he said. “It has been a wonderful journey, and I hope a testament to the fascination of learning and discovery that began and continues right here in Cullowhee.”