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Elliot Meyerowitz and Christopher Somerville

2006 Balzan Prize 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.

ELLIOT MEYEROWITZ was trained as a Drosophila molecular geneticist at Yale and Stanford. He is presently Chairman of the Division of Biology and George W. Beadle Professor of Biology at the California Institute of Technology.

He demonstrated that Arabidopsis had a very small genome and, based on that discovery, created a visionary roadmap for the development of the organism as a model experimental system. His laboratory was the first to clone and sequence an Arabidopsis gene, and to provide a genetic map of molecular markers. Thanks to these contributions, thousands of researchers trained in molecular biology were attracted to the plant research field. Meyerowitz has made many outstanding and seminal contributions to our understanding of the molecular basis of plant growth and development. In particular, he demonstrated that the identity of floral organs is defined by a combination of regulatory genes in the developing flower, and his laboratory cloned and characterized many of these genes. His model of regulatory gene interaction has proven to be applicable to other flowering plants.

His laboratory’s other discoveries include demonstrating how signaling genes maintain a pool of stem cells in the growing shoot and flower, how organs arise from the shoot in appropriate spatial patterns, and how plants perceive ethylene, a gaseous plant growth regulator. His fundamental conceptual contributions to the field of molecular genetics and plant morphogenesis have opened the field of modern plant science.

CHRISTOPHER SOMERVILLE was trained as a bacterial geneticist. He is Director of the Carnegie Institution, Carnegie Institution, Department of Plant Biology, and Professor of Biological Sciences (in Humanities and Sciences) at Stanford University.

He was one of the first to advocate the importance of Arabidopsis for molecular genetic studies. His papers on how to isolate and identify Arabidopsis mutants have convincingly demonstrated the power of this experimental model ystem. 

His work has mainly concerned the use of mutants and transgenic plants to characterize biochemical processes in plants. His earliest work involved the use of novel Arabidopsis mutants to make fundamental contributions to understanding the regulation of photosynthetic CO 2 fixation. He also used genetic methods to identify mutations affecting key steps in lipid biosynthesis and used these mutants to identify the corresponding genes and to discover many aspects of lipid metabolism in plants.

On the basis of mechanistic studies of enzyme action, he discovered the structural basis of fatty acid chemical diversity in plants. His work led to the development of crop plants with modified lipids that have nutritional benefits.

His pioneering research on how plant cell walls are synthesized was the first to explore the biosynthesis of both lignin and cellulose, thus opening the field for constructing plants with higher biomasses and higher cellulose content. This material is a starting point for producing renewable bio-fuels.

Christopher Somerville was the first to sequence Arabidopsis ESTs. This set the tone for the establishment of a worldwide consortium, The Arabidopsis Genome Initiative, alternately chaired by Somerville and by Meyerowitz and it produced the first sequence of a higher plant genome. He actively participated in this work in collaboration with colleagues in The Institute for Genomic Research, which did a major part of the sequencing. Somerville also established The Arabidopsis Information Resource (TAIR), one of the most extensively used biological databases in the world.

Together, CHRISTOPHER SOMERVILLE and ELLIOT MEYEROWITZ organized the Multinational Coordinated Arabidopsis thaliana Genome Project. Over a ten-year period, they promoted the establishment of stock centers, databases, insertion mutants, large DNA libraries, EST (Expressed Sequence Tags) sequencing, and genome sequencing. They vigorosly advocated the importance of making data and materials from genome projects immediately available to the entire scientific community and helped establish such practices as the standard in the Arabidopsis community.
Because of the large impact of Arabidopsis research on all aspects of plant research, including breeding of agricultural plants, the initiatives Meyerowitz and Somerville have undertaken and the results they have achieved are of the highest importance for our planet and for mankind.

Official texts of the General Prize Committee, International Balzan Foundation – “Prize”.

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