photograph by Barbara Ries

Seeding Plant Science

Four years ago Joanne Chory made a bold statement within the pages of the HHMI Bulletin that “the study of plant genomes might contribute more to human health and well-being than the study of any animal genome.” As one of a handful of plant scientists within the HHMI community, the investigator at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies has spent many an hour explaining to quizzical colleagues how much they could learn from the mouse ear cress (Arabidopsis thaliana)—as distinct from the mammalian mouse (Mus musculus).

Chory’s carefully cultivated seeds have now borne fruit. Earlier this fall, HHMI and the California-based Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation announced that we would hold a joint competition to identify up to 15 of this nation’s most creative and talented plant scientists. When selected in 2011, they will join the Institute as investigators and also receive substantial grant support from the Moore Foundation over a five-year period. We think the creation of our joint program underscores the importance of investing in fundamental plant science and will encourage others in the United States to make analogous commitments. We also believe this core group will have an outsized impact on their fields, particularly in attracting a new generation of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.

Plant scientists have tremendous potential to help us understand—and possibly find solutions to—some of the most pressing concerns that face society.

Robert Tjian

Why now? Plant research proved its value long ago—after all, study of the humble pea helped found the modern field of genetics—but one could argue there has never been a more important time in our history. Plant scientists have tremendous potential to help us understand—and possibly find solutions to—some of the most pressing concerns that face society: food production, human health, protection of the environment, identification of renewable energy sources. The 2009 National Research Council Report, “A New Biology for the 21st Century,” provides a much-needed framework for discussing these important issues among policy makers and academic leaders. Other positive developments are on the horizon, including a plan for developing a competitive grants program within the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

For too long, fundamental plant science has been something of an afterthought in the U.S.—where substantial resources are dedicated to applied agricultural research—and represents about 2 percent of overall life sciences spending by the federal government. A highly respected scientist like Chory may succeed in receiving grants through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), but she is an exception. At the turn of the millennium, for example, of some 24,000 scientists working with Arabidopsis as their model organism, fewer than five dozen received NIH research project grants.

The interagency National Plant Genome Initiative—funded through NIH, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the departments of Agriculture and Energy, and others—has generated useful tools and knowledge over the past decade. But the NSF, which supports many plant scientists, has had few dedicated programs in fundamental plant science. Elsewhere in this issue, Vicki L. Chandler, chief program officer for the Moore Foundation’s science initiatives and a noted plant researcher in her own right, describes the challenges and opportunities that face her colleagues in the field.

The collaboration between HHMI and the Moore Foundation illustrates the extraordinary potential for targeted investment in plant science research because our organizations would not appear, at first glance, to be obvious partners. The Moore Foundation, which has long been committed to environmental conservation, has focused on supporting fundamental research in physical, life, and information sciences. Given HHMI’s primary focus on biomedical research with the potential to improve human health, the Institute has historically viewed much of plant science research as outside its traditional scope. Just as the Moore Foundation sought to connect its environmental and scientific interests, HHMI began exploring potential new directions in plant science in a 2008 workshop that Chory helped organize. As a member of the Moore Foundation’s scientific advisory board, I have seen first hand that our organizations share a commitment to supporting excellent science.

The result is something that ecologists might recognize: an example of facultative symbiosis that benefits both organizations and gives the scientists we support a greater chance to survive—if not flourish.

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Biochemistry, Molecular Biology

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