A cell biologist with a distinguished career and admission to the US National Academy of Sciences for his research, Dr. Gordon Sato has died at his home in Massachusetts in the United States on 31 March, aged 89.

During what for others would be retirement years, Dr. Sato further boosted his international profile with the Manzanar Project, for which he won a Rolex Award in 2002, at the age of 74. He was the oldest person to have won an Award in the programme’s 40-year history.

An American of Japanese origin, Gordon H. Sato grew up on Terminal Island in Los Angeles Harbor. His early life was marked by his internment as a teenager, with his family, during World War II at the Manzanar Relocation Center in Owens Valley. The site was one of 10 where 110,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated. The years spent in the arid Owens Valley inspired Sato to start the Manzanar Project in the 1980s (and name it after the place he had been held) to investigate ways of turning deserts located near oceans into agriculturally productive areas.

He said his goals were to eradicate poverty and hunger and to reduce global warming. Dr. Sato wanted to use low-tech methods to generate food for consumption or trade to the benefit of developing populations, notably the Eritreans.

His Manzanar Project was startling in its simplicity, using two of the Eritrean coast’s most abundant resources — sunlight and seawater — to grow the mangrove plants.

The feasibility of the idea was demonstrated by Sato and his team planting hundreds of thousands of mangrove trees along the Red Sea in Eritrea that were used to feed livestock and also provide a sustainable habitat for fish and shellfish.  In 2007, National Geographic magazine estimated that 700,000 mangroves had been planted by the Project along the Eritrean Coast.

In 2005, Dr. Sato won the Blue Planet award (and 50 million yen, about US$500,000) from the Asahi Glass Foundation in Japan “for developing a new mangrove planting technology in Eritrea and through its utilization, thus showing the possibility of building a sustainable local community in the poorest area of the world”.

Dr. Sato was an honorary professor at many universities throughout the world. The author or co-author of over 150 publications in cell and molecular biology, he was widely recognized for his contribution to the understanding of the multiple factors required for the culture and husbandry of mammalian cells outside the body. He also founded many biotechnology ventures and trained numerous students in cell and molecular biology and, more recently, linked to the Manzanar Project, in aquaculture.

Rebecca Irvin, Head of Philanthropy at Rolex, said: “We salute the ingenuity, commitment to justice for mankind and generosity of spirit of Gordon Sato, and we send our condolences to his family. Gordon turned his sophisticated skills to a venture that has brought and is bringing significant benefits to people and a region who need them most.”

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