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Arabidopsis Takes Root: Collaborative Environment

Assistant professor Jeff Long is among Salk's plant biologists who has benefited from the Innovation Grants Program since arriving to the Institute in 2003. A developmental biologist who studies embryogenesis of Arabidopsis, Long studies the TOPLESS gene, so named because of its power to regulate the development of a shoot or a root structure from a seedling.

His lab has learned how to control the function of this gene, which ultimately can serve to manipulate plant structure and agricultural output, he says. But having access to Salk scientists from various scientific disciplines is a major benefit that helps him look at plant biology from a new perspective.

"This is definitely the most collaborative place I've been, for sure," Long says. "Juan Carlos [Izpisúa Belmonte]'s research in limb regeneration and his questions about how to keep stem cells in an undifferentiated state, for example, is similar to what we're asking in plants.

"Those types of conversations, along with stem cell meetings at Salk, are great because they make me think outside of plants and look into new experiments by using similar ideas other stem cell scientists are using," he says.

Further collaborations have developed between the Plant Biology Laboratory and Joseph Noel, director of the Jack H. Skirball Center for Chemical Biology and Proteomics at Salk. His lab has applied its study of the chemical factories that give rise to vital molecules such as phytoalexins — natural forms of anti-fungal and antimicrobial compounds found in many plants, including tobacco and henbane.

Using structure analyses, Noel and his colleagues discovered that changing only nine of its 550 amino acids shifts the production from tobacco-specific phytoalexins to the henbane versions and vice versa. Studies like these are helping the Noel lab better understand how plants adjust their chemical cocktail to adapt to their changing environment and may provide the necessary tools to fine tune the production of natural and environmentally friendly fungicides and pesticides.

Within the Plant Biology lab itself, the lack of dividing walls has historically been a major contributor to the collaborative environment. In the early 1990s, they functioned on the "balloon principle," Weigel says. If Chory and Lamb hired more people, then his space would shrink and vice versa.

Today, it's not much different. The labs have an open design, allowing scientists to tap into the expertise of others around them — a major advantage when you're starting a new lab, Umen says.

In the end, it comes down to the basic principle of freely sharing knowledge with the intent to propel science forward. If the last 25 years of discoveries in plant biology has taught scientists anything, it's that the humble Arabidopsis plant has provided its fair share to that knowledge base.

And it will continue to do, say Salk plant biologists, since what's been discovered so far equates to approximately 10 percent of what they may ultimately learn from Arabidopsis.

"Understanding how plants grow and alter their growth is important and I think Salk has made a number of contributions in this area," Chory says. "We're at the point now with all these genome sequences to really begin understanding the interactions of organisms and how an ecosystem forms.

"To me, the future is going to be studying organisms in the context of their environment – environmental genetics, and plants will play a key role in that."

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