There really wasn't any reason for Detlef Weigel to believe the experiment would work. By the summer of 1994, studies of Arabidopsis thaliana, the lab rat of plant biology, were still in their infancy. Although his lab at the Salk Institute had identified a gene that was involved in causing the plant to flower, no one up until that point had ever attempted what his postdoc was suggesting.
The research team hypothesized that if they transferred the LFY gene into poplar, they would genetically alter the tree and cause it to flower much faster.
"I thought this was just too outlandish," Weigel says. "Trees are so different from Arabidopsis and I thought it simply wouldn't work."
They tried it anyway, and what they discovered not only boggled Weigel's skeptical mind, but also captured the attention of the media and the entire plant biology world.
After the team's first experiment, and several others that followed, the tiny poplar stems began to sprout flowers well ahead their normal time, some while still in the Petri dish.
Poplar trees normally take 10 years to flower. Weigel's stems flowered in just a few months.
"At that point we all realized that this was a completely amazing finding," Weigel says. "It was almost too much to hope for, but it was the ultimate dream come true."
Published the following year in Nature, the study was recognized as a major breakthrough among plant biologists because it was the first demonstration of how scientists could take developmental control genes from Arabidopsis and put them to work in completely difference plants. If the experiment worked in poplar, why not apply it to agriculture?
The breakthrough led to collaborations with Joanne Chory, now professor and director of Salk's Plant Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory. Together, their labs developed a technique called activation tagging, which today is widely used to identify new plant genes. Their work also eventually led to the discovery of FT, a second gene that works in conjunction with LFY to induce flowering.
These are just some of the major discoveries by Salk's Plant Biology Laboratory, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary during a two-day symposium in October. The event is expected to reunite more than 100 scientists, postdocs and donors who contributed to landmark findings over the years.
Chief among the lab's earliest contributors is The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, which provided the start-up funds for Salk's Plant Biology program in 1983 and continued to support it for 15 years. Former Salk President Frederic de Hoffmann spearheaded the search for funding and hired the program's first scientist, Chris Lamb.
The timing couldn't have been better. Salk got in on the ground floor when Arabidopsis was just being studied as a reliable model organism for plant biology research.
The little mustard weed, which grows in wide-ranging environments all over the world, was shown to have a small genome and a fast generation time of about 6 to 8 weeks. This was perfect for research purposes, especially since many of its genes are conserved in agricultural plants such as wheat and corn.
"Chris had the vision for the program, and he was willing to take the risk on Arabidopsis really taking off," says Chory. "But what changed in the mid-'80s was that molecular biology and plant transformation revolutionized plant biology. By then, the first Arabidopsis transgenic plants were made, which allowed scientists to think about a whole different kind of experiment from before because we could now manipulate genes."
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