Before choosing Ausubel’s group for her postdoc in 1984, Chory visited three plant labs and three fruit fly labs. Drosophila science was buzzing, the field glutted and competitive; the plant world seemed inviting. “I thought, ‘That field’s wide open. I could do something important there,’” she says.
At a time when most plant biologists focused on maize, wheat, and other food crops, Chory saw potential in Arabidopsis – an economically insignificant plant that has since become a mainstay of genetics research. “Arabidopsis was in no way established as a real model system at that point. She was taking a leap of faith,” says Steve Kay, a molecular geneticist at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
Kay has collaborated with Chory on about a dozen papers and considers her a close friend. But, he says, “it wasn’t always that way.” The two met in the mid-1980s as postdocs – she at Mass General, he at the Rockefeller University in New York – each keen on applying tools of molecular genetics to figure out how light regulates growth in plants. At a 1987 meeting, Kay laid out his approach: find light-responsive genes; identify DNA stretches called promoters that regulate transcription of those genes; use those fragments to fish for transcription factors that bind the promoters; and, finally, work backwards toward the light-sensing phytochromes.
Afterward, as Kay recalls, Chory piped up, “Well, that’s really an old-fashioned way to do things. We’re going to do it much better than that with genetic screens.” Later, he says, “She gave an amazing talk that made me incredibly jealous.” Chory’s tack was simple: Induce mutations; grow the seeds on dishes, and look for plants that grew short and fat with big leaves in the dark instead of tall, leafless, and spindly. Then identify the mutated genes, figure out what they do, and assign them to a molecular pathway.