C.R. Somerville: Acceptance Speech – Rome, 24.11.2006

USA - USA/Canada

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.

Mr. President,
Members of the Balzan Foundation,
Members of the General Prize Committee,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I wish to thank the International Balzan Foundation for this honor. I am particularly pleased to share the award with my friend and colleague Elliot Meyerowitz, with whom I have had an enjoyable collaboration for many years. We are grateful for the recognition that the award brings to our field of plant molecular genetics. I am also pleased to bring recognition to the Carnegie Institution and to Michigan State University for the support they provided at different times during the past 25 years.

The application of knowledge about plant genetics during the past century has been the single largest factor in environmental conservation and in averting human suffering due to starvation and material deprivation. It was the specter of global food shortages due to population expansion, and the dramatic abatement of that threat by the Green Revolution that stimulated me, and my partner Shauna Somerville, to devote our careers to research on plants. We believed, then and now, that basic knowledge enables the most effective solutions to applied problems. When we were students, in the mid 1970s, the cloning of genes had just become possible. We recognized that the ability to directly manipulate genes would eventually be used to carry out directed improvement of plants. We envisioned that in order to use the new tools wisely and effectively, it would be necessary to build a broad base of knowledge about the genetic basis of all aspects of plant growth and development. To facilitate rapid progress, we focused our work on a small plant with good experimental properties, Arabidopsis thaliana. We were fortunate in attracting a talented group of students, postdoctoral fellows and visitors to work on a range of fundamental problems in plant biology. In accepting this award I wish to acknowledge my many collaborators of the past twenty five years who carried out most of the work and who, through their enthusiasm, curiosity, and collegiality, helped make a life in science enjoyable.

At the same time that Shauna and I became interested in developing a model organism for plant genetics, Elliot Meyerowitz independently formulated a similar vision. In contrast to my interests in biochemical processes, Elliot was primarily interested in developmental processes. Other early advocates were interested in other aspects of biology such as pathology, stress tolerance and genome structure. Thus, Arabidopsis became seen as a model for most aspects of research on plants. Because of our common interest in developing a community, Elliot and I collaborated on a series of activities designed to encourage colleagues to adopt Arabidopsis. This was quite successful and by the late 1980s, we were sufficiently emboldened us to propose the sequencing of the complete genome of Arabidopsis and in collaboration with a group of colleagues from around the world. The project was remarkably successful and in 2000, the first complete DNA sequence of a plant was completed. By that time, approximately 13,000 scientists had adopted Arabidopsis; today a database of information about Arabidopsis produced at my institute attracts more than 35 million contacts per year. As the use of Arabidopsis expanded, many colleagues contributed ideas, methods, and knowledge to the development of the field. Thus, although Elliot and I helped start the ball rolling, many people made important contributions to the success of the enterprise. We are honored to represent that community of colleagues who have become a model for collegiality and cooperation in Science.

Humanity faces many challenges. Today, in addition to concern about the environmental effects of an expanding human population we face the potentially devastating consequences of climate change caused by the use of fossil fuels. As the only source of renewable materials, plants will continue to be of central importance in addressing these and other problems. Because of the power of modern plant molecular genetics to uncover and modify the mechanistic basis of all aspects of plant life, we have the ability to create a second Green Revolution. I hope that this knowledge will be used to help mitigate the humanitarian and environmental consequences of continued human population growth.

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