Elliot Meyerowitz and Christopher Somerville won the Balzan Prize in 2006 for Plant Molecular Genetics, “for their joint efforts in establishing Arabidopsis as a model organism for plant molecular genetics. This has far reaching implications for plant science at both the fundamental level and in potential applications,” Balzan General Prize Committee's motivation said.
Meyerowitz and Somerville’s path breaking work on Arabidopsis became the model for plant study, simplifying the field and allowing for true progress based on a benchmark starting point.
One of the novel methods of the work of the prizewinners involved live imaging of dynamic processes followed by computational image processing. Two key processes under study were cellular differentiation in shoot apical meristems (Meyerowitz) and cellulose synthesis (Somerville).
Thanks to the prize monies, Meyerowitz worked with his postdoctoral student Dr. Marcus Heisler, a pioneer of the new live imaging method. Dr. Heisler worked on the live imaging of growing shoot apical meristems and computational modeling of cell behavior and cell-cell communication during meristem growth. The orientation of cortical microtubule arrays in shoot apical meristem cells under a variety of conditions was live-imaged, and a set of rules were developed to better understand how physical stress regulates their orientation.
A mathematical model of the stresses in the meristem was developed from the experimental data. Heisler departed from Caltech to establish his own laboratory at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, the project continued under two additional postdoctoral fellows, Dr. Wuxing Li, and Dr. Paul Tarr.
They investigated the shoot apical meristem and the involvement of plant hormones auxin and cytokinin in the control of cell expansion, division and gene expression, and therefore, the contribution of these growth hormones to the interaction of physical and chemical signaling that controls meristem cell behavior.
We spoke with them recently to discuss how the Balzan Prize monies helped further their research and field?
«The Balzan prize allowed me to test a radical hypothesis about plant cells and their capacity to signal both chemically and physically. Essentially we were able to follow a dream. Dr. Heisler worked on that, - said Meyerowitz - and the two postdoctoral fellows who followed him as recipients of the Balzan funds studied how hormones regulate gene activity patterns in plant stem cells».
Generally speaking, research is undertaken thanks to government grants. In order to get a government grant however, you typically need to show proven results, so it can be difficult to garner funds to study an idea. The Balzan prize, on the other hand, has no such requirements. What the prize does require is that one-half of the monies be used for younger researchers, a factor which sets it apart from other prizes.
«The Balzan prize afforded me intellectual freedom to pursue research in an area that will help show how stem cells communicate with one another in plants. Our original models were quite simple approaches to plant development - Meyerowitz said -. But then we created a computational model that uses the computer to create advanced developmental models».
While Meyerowitz and Somerville were honored for their work on plant molecular genetics, Meyerowitz also created a new field called Computational Morphodynamics: «This new field that we created, was undertaken in part, thanks to the Balzan prize» Meyerowitz noted.
Meyerowitz, in fact, is currently head of a lab at Cambridge. He was appointed Inaugural Director of the Sainsbury Laboratory and elected into a Professorship in the University, and a Professorial Fellowship at Trinity College while on leave from the California Institute of Technology. Labs have been created in many cities that study just this new field: notably in Freiburg, Montpellier, Edinburgh and Nottingham.
We spoke with Elliot Somerville about his research projects and the Balzan Prize: Somerville concurred with Meyerowitz about the importance of the Balzan Prize monies and how they have helped further his research: «A lot of the grant making process is very conservative. Proposals that are able to garner monies usually already have quite a bit of evidence. It’s hard to find money for new ideas» he added.
«At the time that we won the prize, I was in a temporary funding crisis so it came at a perfect moment. I was interested in the potential uses of cellulose, an abundant organic material about which we didn’t know how it was synthesized or how the properties of the material were determined - Somerville said -. The uncommitted funds from Balzan were essential life savers. They allowed us to do science in the purest possible way».
Somerville involved two post-doctorate students in studies concerning the molecular mechanisms associated with the synthesis of cellulose. The research program in Somerville’s laboratory focused on understanding several aspects of the control of cellulose synthesis. Postdoctoral fellow Ying Gu studied the role of the microtubule cytoskeleton in orienting the deposition of cellulose microfibrils by analyzing mutants in which the deposition is altered. She identified a novel protein, named CSI1, and discovered that the protein is associated with the cellulose synthase complex using live cell imaging. Ying is now an Assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University.
Balzan funds were also used by Professor Somerville to support then postdoctoral fellow Seth DeBolt who investigated the involvement of sterol glycosides in cellulose synthesis. This class of compounds had previously been suggested to act as primers for cellulose synthesis. Seth is now an Associate Professor at the University of Kentucky.
Speaking about the collaboration with Meyerowitz, «We helped to establish patterns of experimentation that made it possible to solve a wide range of problems based on the availability of the genome sequence - Somerville said -. Elliot and I had complementary interests and were able to organize a field around the Arabidopsis. Our vision was to create an open system of sharing information, stock centers, and a central database. The database has about 16,000 registered users and has about 36 million hits a year».
Somerville’s work is now concentrated on biofuels. He is the Director of the Energy Biosciences Institute with 500 people at his institute, of which 127 are professors. Dr. Somerville is also a professor in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology at the University of California, Berkeley.