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New program boosts support for plant scientists at critical time

Courtesy of Keiko Torii, leaf cells

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (GBMF) have selected 15 of the nation’s most innovative plant scientists to join a new initiative that boosts much needed funding for fundamental plant science research. 

The scientists will become HHMI-GBMF Investigators and will receive the flexible support necessary to move their research in creative new directions. They represent 13 institutions from across the United States, and were selected on the basis of individual scientific excellence from a group of 239 applicants.  

HHMI and GBMF formed the collaboration because of concern that basic plant science research has long been underfunded in the United States. The organizations are investing a combined total of $75 million in the new plant science research program over the next five years.  

Both organizations say the investment is critical: According to the United Nations, today’s global population of nearly 7 billion people is expected to jump by 3 billion by 2050 – and one billion people are already suffering from lack of nutrition. The demand for energy is rising, even as the long-term consequences of using fossil fuels become more apparent, thus increasing pressure on agriculture to grow fuel as well as food. 

Despite funding constraints that have plagued plant researchers for decades, this group of scientists has made impressive discoveries, opening up new research fields and improving crop engineering.  

“We selected an outstanding group of plant scientists who will make extraordinary contributions to the field,” said Jack E. Dixon, HHMI Vice President and Chief Scientific Officer.

The new HHMI-GBMF Investigators are conducting research on a variety of plants, such as wheat, maize, tomato, Arabidopsis, moss and algae. Some of the questions they are asking include: 

  • How can photosynthesis be made more efficient? 
  • How can plants be efficiently propagated without seeds? 
  • What mechanisms do plants use to sense temperature and day length and how do they use that information to decide when to flower? 
  • How do plants control the form and function of their root systems? 
  • What makes certain bacteria able to induce disease in plants? 
  • How do plants recognize beneficial versus pathogenic microbes? 
  • How do hormones control a plant’s life cycle – from embryo to senescence? 

“These Investigators will acquire new knowledge about – and possibly find innovative solutions to – some of the most pressing challenges in plant sciences. GBMF and HHMI believe the research will generate high-impact discoveries with implications for a range of intertwined concerns facing society: food production, human health, protection of the environment, and identification of renewable energy resources,” said Vicki L. Chandler, Chief Program Officer for Science at GBMF. 

A Collaborative Solution Emerges 

Despite the central role plants play in maintaining human health and in healthcare, basic research in the plant sciences represents only about two percent of overall life sciences spending by the federal government. In the United States, the bulk of the funding from the Department of Agriculture has not gone to competitive basic research and the Biology Directorate program at the National Science Foundation is relatively small, with limited dedicated programs in fundamental plant biology. Furthermore, researchers working in the plant sciences receive a relatively small percentage of funding from the National Institutes of Health. 

“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. “We are as excited as these scientists are to begin putting their best ideas into action.” 

Since its creation in 2000, GBMF has focused on supporting fundamental non-biomedical research and environmental conservation. HHMI has a long history of identifying scientists with exceptional talent and providing them with long-term, flexible funding so they can pursue solutions to important basic life sciences and biomedical research questions wherever they lead. The path that led to the HHMI-GBMF collaboration began in 2008, when the scientific leadership of HHMI met with the Institute’s medical advisory board at a retreat to brainstorm ideas for new research initiatives. A new plant science research program emerged as a top contender. 

A year later, the Institute convened a scientific workshop that invited a select group of scientists from academia and industry to discuss “Future Horizons in Plant Science.” As the workshop concluded, those present reached the consensus that despite the lack of funding, additional investment in the plant sciences could have a big impact. When Robert Tjian became president of HHMI in 2009, a plant sciences initiative rose to the top of his list of priority items. Furthermore, Tjian, who had formerly served as chairman of the scientific advisory board at GBMF, suggested that HHMI and GBMF explore a partnership to invest jointly in plant sciences research. 

“This partnership offered us a chance to make a real difference in an underfunded field," said Steven J. McCormick, president of GBMF. "In collaborating with a venerable organization like HHMI, we have a greater ability, together, to help transform the field and yield fundamental new knowledge in the plant sciences.” 

In September 2009, HHMI and GBMF jointly announced a nationwide open competition to solicit applications from top-tier scientists at 239 eligible institutions. The competition was open to researchers who had run their own lab for at least four years. Candidates were evaluated on their potential for significant research productivity and originality, as judged by their doctoral and postdoctoral work, their research plans, and results from their independent research program. 

The 15 HHMI-GBMF Investigators will receive an initial five-year appointment to HHMI and the support necessary to move their research in creative, new directions. Their appointment may be renewed for additional five-year terms, each contingent on a successful scientific review. HHMI-GBMF investigators will receive their full salary and benefits from HHMI. Research support will be provided by HHMI and GBMF. 

The new HHMI-GBMF investigators will begin their appointments in September 2011. 

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The Howard Hughes Medical Institute 

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute is dedicated to discovering and disseminating new knowledge in the basic life sciences. HHMI  grounds its research programs on the conviction that scientists of exceptional talent and imagination will make fundamental contributions of lasting scientific value and benefit to mankind when given the resources, time, and freedom to pursue challenging questions. The Institute prizes intellectual daring and seeks to preserve the autonomy of its scientists as they pursue their research. In addition, through its grants program and other activities, HHMI is helping to enhance science education at all levels and maintain the vigor of biomedical science worldwide. 

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation 

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, established in 2000, seeks to advance environmental conservation and scientific research around the world and improve the quality of life in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Foundation’s Science Program aims to make a significant impact on the development of provocative, transformative scientific research, and increase knowledge in emerging fields. For more information, please visit www.moore.org.

See the investigators' bios here: 

http://www.hhmi.org/news/plantscience20110616_list.html 

Related Link: http://www.hhmi.org/news/new-program-boosts-support-plant-scientists-critical-time