Salk Institute for Biological Studies: InsideSalk

Arabidopsis Takes Root: Noble Foundation Plays Key Role

In 1982, Lamb's laboratory in Oxford was beginning to gain international attention for its research on how plants defend themselves against pests and pathogens when Salk approached him with the offer to start the Plant Biology program. His lab had made progress at the physiological and biochemical levels and Lamb was now looking to apply the emerging plant molecular biology technology to his work.

"This seemed a fantastic, if somewhat risky, opportunity," said Lamb of his decision to come to Salk. "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."

Despite offers from other institutions, he decided to take the risk. At first, Salk's Plant Biology Laboratory was split between two locations: One group worked in a downtown La Jolla building on plant disease resistance, and a second worked on a new project on monoclonal antibody approaches to characterize functions at the plant cell surface.

The split was short-lived as the program grew from an initial team of six researchers to 12 by 1985, then again to about 20 researchers by 1988. As space became available at Salk's main campus, the entire laboratory was combined under one roof in 1988.

There's no question that The Noble Foundation played a crucial role in establishing plant biology at Salk, Lamb says. It contributed significantly to start-up costs and an initial five-year grant for Lamb. The agreement also called for the creation of a small plant cell biology program in Ardmore, Oklahoma, the foundation's headquarters and where Lamb served as an advisor.

By 1987, that program eventually morphed into the foundation's new Plant Biology Division, which was directed by Lamb's Oxford colleague and recruit Richard Dixon. The strong synergy between both groups led to a second (in 1988) and third (in 1993) five-year funding cycle that allowed the Salk Institute to expand the program and hire Chory and Weigel.

"Salk's proven reputation, along with joint postdoctoral fellowships, yearly retreats and mentorship for some of the young scientists, helped provide fertile ground for the Noble Foundation's Plant Biology Division to grow," said Noble Foundation President and CEO Michael A. Cawley.

"Both organizations and the scientific community have benefited greatly from this collaboration, which has spanned more than 30 years and will continue for as long as man poses questions about the world around him."

The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation initially focused on funding agriculture in an attempt to rejuvenate the state's industry following the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and World War II. It is named after the family's patriarch, a farm merchant who acquired land as farmers left the area. The land was later found to be rich in oil and natural gas.

De Hoffmann played a key role securing funding from the foundation when he identified the potential for great collaboration between the two organizations. He had a strong relationship with a foundation board member and believed Salk's Plant Biology program could provide a modern scientific approach to the foundation's historic interest in agriculture.

He was right. The synergy led to the growth, success and many discoveries that are still proving to be vital.

"In hindsight this was kind of the vision, but I don't think anyone imagined it would be on this scale or with this impact," says Lamb, who left Salk in 1998 and is now director of the John Innes Centre in Norwich, England.

Chory agrees.

"They made a big difference by contributing to Salk. The program exists today because of funding from the Noble Foundation," says Chory, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator since 1997. "Noble Foundation funding allowed the Salk to recruit plant scientists to an environment populated by some of the world's most innovative biomedical scientists. The high standards of our colleagues influenced our program tremendously."

Several organizations and individuals throughout the years have also made significant financial contributions to plant biology at Salk, including the Rockefeller Foundation, the Seaver Institute, the Mary K. Chapman Foundation, the Henry L. Guenther Foundation, among many others.

Most recently, Salk's donor-funded Innovation Grants Program has provided a fresh injection of funding for the development of new investigative techniques and novel discoveries that otherwise would not be funded by traditional government sources.

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InsideSalk 10|08 Issue | © Salk Institute for Biological Studies