A.C. Matin, Stanford Medicine microbiologist who sent E. coli to space, dies at 83

The microbiologist, on the faculty for nearly half a century, studied a wide range of topics, including antibiotic resistance, cancer, and bacteria as an agent for cleaning up toxic chemicals.

- By Jennifer Welsh

A.C. Matin

A.C. Matin, PhD, an emeritus professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford Medicine, died April 14 at home. He was 83.

“A.C. had a long and impressive career at Stanford Medicine, with his research spanning many decades and topics,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the Stanford School of Medicine and vice president for medical affairs at Stanford University. “His research is indicative of his curiosity about so many subjects including the human body and our environment. He is leaving behind a wide array of foundational discoveries in many aspects of microbiology.”

Matin joined the Stanford Medicine faculty in 1975 and worked in the microbiology and immunology department for almost 50 years. His work covered many different fields, making a real contribution to each of the directions he took, said his colleague Peter Sarnow, PhD, a professor in microbiology and immunology.

Matin’s research focused on various microbiology and biotechnology-related topics, including antibiotic resistance, cancer research, biomolecular engineering, biofilms, cellular resistance and virulence, the biology of microgravity, and the use of bacteria to clean up toxic chemicals.

“He was unafraid to move his work in new directions,” Sarnow said. “I was totally, pleasantly surprised one day when he told me that he was working on human cancer — it had nothing to do with bacteria.”

Matin was a mentor to many international postdoctoral and graduate students. Over the years, more than 30 graduate students, 70 postdoctoral fellows and 60 undergraduate students conducted research in his lab.

“A.C. was very committed to his research and his team of graduate students and postdocs,” his wife and collaborator, Mimi Matin, said. “He spent time working every single day, even after retirement. He committed his whole life to scientific research, and that curiosity did not just end when he became an emeritus faculty member.”

Wide-ranging interests

One of Matin’s most prominent projects was studying how bacteria respond to being starved of nutrients. He also studied the mechanisms of antibacterial resistance of bacterial biofilms and how bacteria respond to antibacterials in zero gravity, collaborating with NASA to send E. coli to space in a microsatellite.

“Matin branched out into different areas of research later in his career,” said Denise Monack, PhD, the Martha Meier Weiland Professor in the School of Medicine and chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. “His focus on bacterial stress responses yielded critical insights into bacterial behavior under changing conditions. These findings had important implications for understanding bacterial growth in both human hosts and natural environments.”

A.C. Matin was known on campus for his fashionable style.
Courtesy of the Matin family

He also experimented with using bacteria to clean up environmental pollutants: He engineered bacterial strains to be more effective at destroying carcinogens as well as heavy metals and radiation.

In his later years, he focused a cancer therapy project on delivering new drugs using bubbles containing RNA. He discovered and improved on an enzyme that is metabolized by the body into a cancer drug that can also be used in imaging.

Matin retired in 2021 but kept up with the literature in his field and gave several panel discussions. “Science was his thing,” Mimi Matin said.

“He loved being part of scientific research, contributing to it and watching his mentees go on to do their own things,” his niece Sara Cipani said. “He loved engaging with the community of scientific research.”

Half a century at Stanford

Matin was born in 1941 in Delhi, India. When he was 6, during the Partition of India, his family left everything they had to make a new life in Pakistan, where they became successful businesspeople, Matin’s family members said.

Matin attended the University of Karachi, earning his bachelor’s in microbiology in 1960 and a master’s in microbiology in 1962. For two years after graduation, he was a lecturer in microbiology at St. Joseph’s College for Women in Karachi.

He earned a PhD in microbiology in 1969 from the University of California, Los Angeles, where he met his wife.

The couple moved to the Netherlands, where Matin was a senior lecturer in microbiology at the State University of Groningen. They lived there for four years before Matin joined the faculty at Stanford Medicine’s microbiology department in 1975. He became a full professor in 1992.

“A.C. liked the vigor of the science here very much; that’s why he stayed,” Mimi Matin said. “But he also loved the natural beauty of campus.” He enjoyed daily walks around the campus and took great pride in his garden, never tiring of the blooms each season would bring.

An international cultured man

Around campus, Matin was known as a fashionable and worldly man — a polite person with an outstanding sense of style. “I think it’s fair to say he was the best-dressed man in the department — maybe even at the school,” Sarnow said. “He looked like someone who should be walking around central Paris.”

The look fit his lifestyle, as the couple had a second home in Paris, where he took nightly walks, admiring the lights on the streets. They shared a deep interest in culture — enjoying beautiful art, music and literature. In Paris they visited museums and attended concerts and the opera.

Matin loved poetry and had an impressive memory for verse, his family said; he sprinkled aptly chosen lines from his favorite writers throughout his conversations and correspondence. His favorite writers include Oscar Wilde, Bertrand Russell and Franz Kafka; his favorite composer, Gustav Mahler.

His family said he wasn’t a fan of idle chatter. Instead, he engaged people he met, whether bank tellers or exterminators, in real conversations. He enjoyed talking to people with different views in discussions about world events, politics and the human condition — and always approached these topics with care, love and respect.

“He was comfortable speaking to people with different beliefs than him,” Cipani said. “It was a type of sparring, but always good-natured. And it was never contentious — he just enjoyed the debate.”

Matin was a Fulbright fellow from 1964 to 1971. In 1995, he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology; in 2011, he was elected an associate fellow of the American Aerospace Medical Association.

Matin is survived by his wife of 56 years, Mimi K. Matin of Stanford, California, and his older brother, Shamim Ahmad, and younger sister, Naeema Aftab, who live in Pakistan. An elder brother, S.M. Ahmad, preceded him in death.

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit med.stanford.edu.

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