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Plant Biology Lab Remembers Founding Scientist Chris Lamb

chris lamb

Chris Lamb

The scientific community was saddened this summer when Chris Lamb, the founding scientist and director of the Salk Institute's Plant Biology Laboratory, died suddenly at age 59 in Norwich, England.

A world-renowned researcher who pioneered studies in the molecular mechanisms that underlie how plants defend themselves against pathogens, Lamb was recruited by former Salk President Frederic de Hoffmann from Oxford in 1983 to establish what would become an extraordinary Plant Biology program at the Institute.

In an interview last year for an Inside Salk cover story (Oct. '08 issue) in celebration of the Plant Biology Laboratory's 25th anniversary, Lamb recalled his thoughts in deciding to take de Hoffmann up on the offer to establish a lab at the Salk.

"This seemed a fantastic, if somewhat risky, opportunity," Lamb said. "Fantastic because of Salk's great prestige and reputation in biomedicine and neurobiology. Risky, but exciting, because I would be starting something from ground zero."

Lamb left Oxford and headed for La Jolla, where he spent the next 15 years conducting some of the groundbreaking work that led him to become one of the most respected leaders in plant biology research.

"Chris had a good sense of the big picture," said Joanne Chory, professor and director of Salk's Plant Biology Lab, who was recruited to the Institute by Lamb in 1988. "He was focused and analytical, and always knew how to move things forward.

"Lamb had a real sense of the beauty of plant biology," she said. "Beyond his superb science, he will be remembered as the founding faculty member of the Salk program and as an international voice for the discipline."

Lamb returned to England in 1998 to lead the John Innes Centre, one of the world's leading institutions of plant research. He promoted a culture of excellence there, and was recently named a Fellow of the Royal Society in recognition of his scientific achievements.

In 2000 Lamb returned to Salk for a visit, saying he'd come back to California "for a dose of optimism." Chory said he remained very fond of the Salk and spoke of how it had influenced him.

Likewise, Lamb influenced the San Diego research landscape. Today, there are 16 Plant Biology principal investigators across the mesa (Salk, UCSD and Scripps), seven of whom are members of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Chris' legacy in La Jolla is not just his own science, but the scientists he identified and mentored who have made La Jolla one of the top places for plant science in the world," Chory said. "We are deeply saddened by this loss."