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From Plants to Stem Cells, Salk Research Generates Wide-Reaching Impact

Since the Salk Institute's founding in 1960, its scientists have asked daring questions to probe the fundamental principles of life in an effort to conquer disease and improve human health. Their world-renowned basic research has led and continues to lead to many significant applications that have a very direct impact on human health. Let me give you a few examples drawn from the past year.

John Young developed a highly effective, single-injection agent against anthrax that works faster and better than any current vaccine when administered to rat models. The new anti-anthrax agent is an important and potentially critical development for anyone who works with the bacterium or for those who might be exposed to it in a bioterrorism attack.

The potential for a groundbreaking pill drew headlines worldwide in August when Ronald Evans published his "Exercise in a Pill" study. His lab's research demonstrated the power of two experimental drugs: One tricked the body's muscles into thinking they had been exercised, while a second dramatically boosted endurance by more than 70 percent when combined with exercise. While this may appeal to so-called "couch potatoes," the possibility of being able to achieve the benefits of exercise through a compound that's taken orally may provide much-needed relief to those who cannot physically exercise as a result of trauma or disease.

Satchidananda Panda has found that a sensitive light meter in the retina called melanopsin is involved in setting our biological clocks. Further studies in this area may one day allow scientists to reset the body's clock with a pill to alleviate symptoms associated with jet lag, shifts in work schedules and disorders such as insomnia and depression.

Inder Verma published a study in August that uncovered the molecular mechanisms behind allergies. This discovery raises renewed hope for the development of therapies to treat hypersensitive allergic diseases, including hay fever.

Scientists at Salk are strongly committed to stem cell research and the promise it holds for treating neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. In a study this summer that's a first, Fred H. Gage successfully changed the fate of adult neural stem cells that were still in place within the brains of mice. Previously, scientists had only been able to accomplish this feat with cells that were cultured in the lab. The discovery not only attests to the versatility of neural stem cells but also opens new possibilities for the treatment of other conditions such as multiple sclerosis, stroke and epilepsy.

In this issue, we celebrate the leading discoveries made by Salk's Plant Biology Laboratory over the last 25 years. During that time, several of its scientists have established new paradigms for the field that has led to a better understanding of plant genetics and climate resistance. The results of their studies have applications that may allow growers to produce higher-yielding, and more-abundant crops to keep up with the world's increasing demand for food.

Early studies in genetic variation by Joanne Chory and former lab member Detlef Weigel, for example, revealed several genes that enable plants to thrive in varying climates, as well as the previously unknown similar role played by the plants' photoreceptors. Their findings provided the first clues to how crops could be developed to adapt to challenging environments while also boosting yield.

Joseph Noel has discovered how to radically change the production of a plant's natural anti-fungal chemical by working with a key enzyme. The study not only gives Salk scientists a glimpse of the model plant's evolutionary past, but will help them fine-tune the production of natural and environmentally friendly fungicides and pesticides.

In a wide variety of areas of groundbreaking basic research, Salk investigators are pushing forward the boundaries of scientific knowledge, and it's this ever-increasing knowledge that will continue to provide the answers we're seeking so that all of us can lead healthier lives.