Joseph Ecker appointed Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation investigator
Plant biologist Joseph R. Ecker, professor in the Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory and director of the Genomic Analysis Laboratory, has been selected as an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (GBMF), a collaboration focusing on plant biology.
Only 15 investigators were selected from the 239 plant scientists who applied for the competition, chosen on the basis of individual scientific excellence. With Ecker's appointment, three plant biologists at the Salk hold HHMI appointments.
Ecker is internationally recognized for his pioneering contributions to plant genomics. Early on, he advocated for the mapping and sequencing of the genome of the tiny mustard weed Arabidopsis thaliana and directed much of the sequencing project. Commonly known as thale cress, Arabidopsis was the first flowering plant to have its entire genome unlocked and is now widely considered one of the most important model organisms for the study of plant genetics and genomes.
"Without Joe's groundbreaking contributions, Arabidopsis would be just another weed," says Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Joanne Chory, professor and director of the Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory and holder of the Howard H. and Maryam R. Newman Chair in Plant Biology. As Chory has stated, "The study of plant genomes might contribute more to human health and wellbeing than the study of any animal genome. I am delighted for Joe because he has almost singlehandedly made Arabidopsis the model of choice for plant functional genomics studies, owing to his vision, his generosity to the community, and his great enthusiasm for solving problems of scale."
In the last few years, Ecker's laboratory has started to zero in on genomic methylation patterns, which are essential for normal development and associated with a number of key cellular processes, including carcinogenesis. After perfecting his high-throughput method of mapping the precise position of these individual DNA modifications throughout the genome in Arabidopsis, Ecker is now applying the technological innovations and analytical tools he developed in plants to work on disease-related problems in humans.
"Joe Ecker is highly deserving of this recognition, which is reserved for a select group of extraordinary scientists," said Salk president William R. Brody. "HHMI and GBMF have made a bold move into plant biology. This enhanced focus and appreciation for plant biology has the potential to help us understand and find solutions to critical issues of world hunger, human health, and environmental sustainability."