Monday, June 20, 2011

A great moment for plant sciences: winners of HHMI-GBMF competition for Plant Science Program Investigators announced

This is truly the golden era for plant sciences. One key sign of this is the announcement of the winners of the competition to become HHMI Investigators in Plant Sciences.

HHMI, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, has for many years picked HHMI Investigators in Biomedical Research. Those picked get guaranteed funds for 5 years and become technically employees of HHMI in order to get them out of miscellaneous burdensome university activities. It's a win win situation for universities because HHMI pays for space and salaries for the Investigators. I myself tried to get me one of these "Uncle Howie" types of positions a few years ago but did not win out. My brother, Michael, did. The other people they picked the year they picked Michael and not me were all very good, so I actually did not feel so bad about not getting it.

HHMI has also invested in other areas related to biomedical research including funding Janelia Farm, and Early Career Scientist program, as well as many educational activities.

The GBMF, aka the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has itself made major contributions to science and medicine in various ways. One example is the Marine Microbiology Initiative (MMI) (which funded the iSEEM project for which I am PI) and cool work out of many top marine labs. In fact, the MMI program did something rarely seen outside of HHMI - they funded "people not projects" by creating MMI Investigators who got a good chunk of money to do pretty much whatever they wanted.

Thus it was great to hear some time ago that GBMF and HHMI were coming together to create a Plant Sciences Investigator program. I confess even though I am not a real plant biologist I considered applying for this because I have shifted much of my work recently into studies of plant associated microbiomes. But I did not apply. And I kept wondering - who would emerge from the competition as winners. Would they be people I respected/had heard of?

Well the wait is over. Last week the winners were announced: HHMI News: 2011 Plant Science Program HHMI-GBMF Investigators. And it is quite an incredible crew. The press release from HHMI-GBMF is quite useful (unlike many press releases in the sciences). Here is a list of the winners with some additional details (taken from the HHMI site - I hope they do not mind).










JUNE 16, 2011
2011 Plant Science Program 
HHMI-GBMF Investigators
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Philip Benfey, Ph.D.
Philip Benfey, Ph.D.
Duke University
Durham, NC

Benfey is studying how plants control the form and function of their root systems. Moresmall arrow
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Dominique Bergmann, Ph.D.
Dominique Bergmann, Ph.D.
Stanford University
Palo Alto, CA

By studying the formation of the structures plants use to control the exchange of water and carbon dioxide, Bergmann is making fundamental discoveries about how cells acquire their fates and establish the patterns needed to build a complete organism. Moresmall arrow
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Simon Chan, Ph.D.
Simon Chan, Ph.D.
University of California, Davis
Davis, CA

By studying basic chromosome biology, Chan has made discoveries that have practical implications for making crop plants easier to breed. Moresmall arrow
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Xuemei Chen, Ph.D.
Xuemei Chen, Ph.D.
University of California, Riverside
Riverside, CA

Chen’s lab has two overlapping goals: deciphering the molecular programs that control flower formation, and determining how small RNAs control gene activity in plants. Moresmall arrow
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Jeff Dangl, Ph.D.
Jeff Dangl, Ph.D.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, NC

Plants are confronted by a daunting range of bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Dangl is working to understand how plants recognize beneficial versus pathogenic microbes. Moresmall arrow
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Xinnian Dong, Ph.D.
Xinnian Dong, Ph.D.
Duke University
Durham, NC

Dong is investigating how plant defense genes promote resistance to pathogens. Moresmall arrow
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Jorge Dubcovsky, Ph.D.
Jorge Dubcovsky, Ph.D.
University of California, Davis
Davis, CA

Dubcovsky’s investigations of wheat genetics have enabled him to boost the plant’s nutritional content, increase yield, and optimize the growing cycle for particular climates. Moresmall arrow
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Joseph Ecker, Ph.D.
Joseph Ecker, Ph.D.
Salk Institute for Biological Studies
La Jolla, CA

Ecker is trying to understand how plants perceive and respond to gases required for stress protection, seed germination and fruit ripening. Moresmall arrow
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Mark Estelle, Ph.D.
Mark Estelle, Ph.D.
University of California, San Diego
La Jolla, CA

Estelle is investigating how hormones help plants respond to alter their growth in response to changes in including light, temperature, water, and nutrient availability. Moresmall arrow
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Sheng Yang He, Ph.D.
Sheng Yang He, Ph.D.
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI

He works to identify the techniques that bacteria use to attack plants and make them more susceptible to disease, which has implications for both crops and human health. Moresmall arrow
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Robert Martienssen, Ph.D.
Robert Martienssen, Ph.D.
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Cold Spring Harbor, NY

The gene silencing methods studied in Martienssen’s lab keep mobile genetic elements under control and are critical to normal plant reproduction and development. Moresmall arrow
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Elliot Meyerowitz, Ph.D.
Elliot Meyerowitz, Ph.D.
California Institute of Technology
Pasadena, CA

One of the questions that interests Meyerowitz is how plant cells recognize and respond to chemical and mechanical signals. Moresmall arrow
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Krishna Niyogi, Ph.D.
Krishna Niyogi, Ph.D.
University of California, Berkeley
Berkeley, CA

Niyogi has spent two decades delving into photosynthesis and has made fundamental discoveries that help scientists understand the strategies plants use to adapt to their environment. Moresmall arrow
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Craig Pikaard, Ph.D.
Craig Pikaard, Ph.D.
Indiana University at Bloomington
Bloomington, IN

One of the major research interests in Pikaard’s lab is understanding how plant genes are silenced. Moresmall arrow
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Keiko Torii, Ph.D.
Keiko Torii, Ph.D.
University of Washington
Seattle, WA

Torii’s lab studies how plant cells coordinate proliferation and differentiation during organ morphogenesis to generate beautiful, orderly patterns. Moresmall arrow

It is a phenomenal crew. I know many of them personally and professionally and there is no doubt they are among the most creative and productive in life sciences, let alone in plant biology. Philip Benfey at Duke has been involved in this massive DARPA project in which I have also been involved on the "Fundamental Laws of Biology" and he in part is what inspired me to get more into plant - microbe interaction studies. I have known Jeff Dangl at UNC for many years and in addition to always being impressed with his science his recent shift to working on "microbiomes" of plant roots has inspired me to do more experiments in model genetic hosts. This is part of why my lab is now involved in studies of microbes associated with rice and corn. I have also known Joe Ecker for many years too (I worked on the Arabidopsis thaliana genome sequencing paper in which he was involved) and every time I see him I end up wanting to do another plant associated project. And I have seen him and Jeff Dangl a lot since they have both been outside advisors to a variety of DOE-JGI projects in which I am involved.  I worked with Elliot Meyerowitz on a National Academy of Science panel that came out with a report on the future of the life science "The New Biology for the 21st Century".  Elliot was a steadfast defender of basic science and small scale science in that panel.  I interacted with Craig Pikaard many years ago regarding the finding of a novel RNA polymerase homolog (RNA pol IV) in the Arabidopsis genome.   I could go on and on but won't. Suffice it to say, I am very impressed with the collection of people that are the winners of the competition.

I will however go on and on a bit about one other thing. Two of the winners are from UC Davis: Simon Chan and Jorge Dubcovsky. Both are phenomenal and great to have on campus. In fact, Davis is one of only two places that has two winners. Duke is the other one. UCSD sort of has two if you include Joe Ecker from Salk which is around the corner. This makes me proud to be at UC Davis which is a hotbed for good plant biology research.

Anyway, I think it is great that both HHMI and GBMF are getting more into plant sciences - especially now that federal funding programs are hurting a bit.

As a last little bit here, here are some fully open access papers by this crew:
There are many many more - yet another thing I like about this group. 

2 comments:

  1. Congratulations to all the new HHMI plant science investigators. Clearly these are excellent scientist and leaders in the Plant Biology research community, but I have to question if giving more to those already successful (an quite well supported) is really offering a big advancement to plant biology. I wonder aloud if giving the same support to fifteen early career investigators would spur much greater innovation than giving more to the haves.

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  2. Interesting idea - I think that was the point behind the HHMI Young Investigator program they started recently. Maybe they will do that with plants too. I think the key to the success of this type of funding is "people not projects". If you give good researchers at any level freedom to just do what they think is important/cool/interesting you can end up with some good stuff.

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