• Elliot Meyerowitz, holding a tray of Arabidopsis thalian seedlings. (Inset) live-cell imaging by laser scanning confocal microscopy to produce this image of Arabidopsis thaliana shoot apical meristem surrounded by floral primordia, with fluorescent reporters for the expression of the meristem regulatory genes: FILAMENTOUS FLOWER (green), MODIFIER OF B FUNCTION (blue) and PINFORMED1 (red).
06/16/2011 10:00:00

Caltech Scientist Awarded $5 Million Grant for Plant Research

PASADENA, Calif.—Elliot Meyerowitz, a plant genetics and developmental biology expert at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), has been awarded one of 15 five-year, $5 million grants for fundamental plant science research.

The awards were made by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (GBMF).

Meyerowitz, the George W. Beadle Professor of Biology at Caltech, is an expert in the study of Arabidopsis thaliana, a small flowering plant in the mustard family and a model organism for plant genetics and molecular biology studies. During three decades of study, his work revealed the mechanism by which plants create their characteristic patterns of leaves and flowers; uncovered the first plant hormone receptor; and led to the sequencing of the Arabidopsis genome.

Traditionally, fundamental plant research often has been overlooked and underfunded. Indeed, despite the importance of plant science to food production, human health, environmental protection, and renewable-energy science, basic plant research represents only 2 percent of the funding for life sciences from the federal government.

The $75 million in awards represents an unprecedented influx of cash.

"I think this sort of funding is overdue, but not surprising," Meyerowitz says. "Medical researchers and policy makers are becoming increasingly aware that health and agriculture are critically related. The World Health Organization estimates that 10 percent of the entire world disease burden is due to undernutrition. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates 925 million people are undernourished, and most estimates indicate that more people die of starvation every year, worldwide, than of cancer. Plants are also at the heart of many solutions to our energy problems and the relation of energy use to climate change," he adds, "because plants absorb carbon dioxide and emit oxygen."

"We think the creation of our joint program underscores the importance of investing in fundamental plant science, and we hope it will encourage others in the United States to make analogous commitments," said HHMI President Robert Tjian, in an announcement about the awards.

Meyerowitz is currently on leave from Caltech and serving as the inaugural director of the Sainsbury Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, which concentrates on understanding plant development and plant diversity through experimental and computational approaches. Meyerowitz will use the funding from the HHMI and the GBMF to develop a new interface between plant developmental biology and computational modeling, based on a method known as computational morphodynamics—the study of the three-way interaction of physical, informational, and geometrical processes that influences the changing form, shape, and structure of living cells, tissues, and organisms.

Written by Kathy Svitil