Philip Benfey didn't start out as a plant biologist; neither did Jeff Dangl, nor Elliot Meyerowitz, who worked on fruit flies until he decided to develop a plant as a model system for genetics and molecular biology. Yet today the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) recognized their excellence in plant science by selecting them and 12 other researchers to join its cadre of elite investigators.
The selections represent a strategic shift for an organization that traditionally funds biomedical studies. In conjunction with theGordon and Betty Moore Foundation, HHMI announced plans last September to boost plant science research by spending $75 million over the next 5 years by hiring 15 plant biologists. They argued that plant science, particularly in the United States, needed more support and that the new program would bring increased recognition to the field. "There's no question that this field is underfunded for the need and potential for cutting edge science," agrees Benfey, a developmental biologist from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
HHMI uses its $14 billion endowment to support 350 investigators scattered across 70 institutions. Periodically it holds open competitions to select more investigators. Yet out of 2000 recent applications, only seven had come from plant scientists. HHMI wanted to see more plant biologists apply, says Jack Dixon, HHMI chief scientific officer, so it and the Moore Foundation set up a special competition just for the field.
Researchers covet HHMI's 5-year, renewable appointments because the institute is generous with its research funding—doing the math suggests the new grantees will get about $1 million per year each—and encourages high-risk research. "Usually a grant is based on what you just published, so it's very difficult to change direction," says Dangl, a plant immunologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Becoming an HHMI investigator is "a unique opportunity to take a left turn."
Dangl intends to greatly expand his efforts to understand which plant genes are involved in setting up microbe communities associated with roots. He plans to let some of his current grants run out without trying to renew them so that he will have to take less time managing them.
Typically, HHMI picks new investigators who have had their own labs for less than 10 years. But Meyerowitz, Benfey, and Dangl, are among the seven awardees with more than 21 years of experience. "We wanted to pick some of the plant leaders in the field," says Dixon.
But the group also includes plant developmental biologist Dominique Bergmann, a newly minted associate professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California—she also originally trained as an animal biologist before turning to plants. Bergmann says she's pleased that her research budget will now triple, enabling her to add more technical staff members and perhaps postdoctoral fellows to her lab, which up until now has covered several research areas primarily by having outside collaborations. She also plans to develop better imaging and cell-manipulation techniques that will benefit not just her lab but the entire field.
There is one other investigator with less than 10 years experience, Simon Chan of the University of California, Davis, who studies basic chromosome biology in plants. The other six are mid-career scientists.
Beyond the 15 scientists, the star of the HHMI awards is arguably a small mustard plant, Arabidopsis thaliana. While "the organisms [studied] were never a determining factor" in the selection process, says Dixon, all but one of the new HHMI investigators study Arabidopsis—eight focusing primarily or exclusively on this small, fast-growing weed. It was the first plant species sequenced, in 2000, and has been the subject of intense investigation, in part supported by a special National Science Foundation (NSF) program known as Arabidopsis 2010, whose funding has recently ended.
The HHMI grants confirm Arabidopsis "is still the Rolls Royce of model systems in plant biology," says Dangl. "If you want to understand mechanisms that are generic to plant biology, the best tool kit is Arabidopsis, and to keep drilling in that tool kit will continue to enable applied research."
For Duke plant biologist Xinnian Dong, who for 20 years has studied plant immune responses in Arabidopsis, HHMI support comes in the nick of time to replace the NSF funding that had supported her early work. With her HHMI money, she will explore the connections between the immune system and circadian clock genes, as well as the link between immune response and DNA repair genes. "I have been very worried about the current grant situation," says Dong.
The lone non-Arabidopsis researcher, wheat scientist Jorge Dubcovsky from the University of California, Davis, is also relieved. His studies of wheat genetics have led to better wheat varieties. He welcomes the freedom provided by the guaranteed support. "What it does is it changes my frame of mind from how I am going to survive the next round of grants to what needs to be done to move the work ahead."
Dubcovsky considers himself fortunate as he knows of several excellent crops researchers who applied for the new program but didn't get selected. Dixon and Vicki Chandler, chief program officer for science at the Moore Foundation, acknowledge that the selection process was tough. "This was an extremely talented pool of applicants," says Chandler. "I wish we had three times the money; we could have easily spent that and kept up the high quality."