Inside Salk - October 2008 - page 5

... molecular biology and
plant transformation
revolutionized plant biology
... the first Arabidopsis
transgenic plants were made,
which allowed scientists to
think about a whole different
kind of experiment...
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 25
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
nowmanipulate genes.”
Genetic Variation Studies
Chory joined the Institute in 1988 and
brought a complementary perspective to plant
research at Salk. While Lamb worked on
plant pathogen interactions, Chory was
interested in how plants perceive and respond
to changes in their environment, particularly
to light.
Stronger collaborations followed after
Weigel joined the Institute in 1993.
Although they studied two different traits –
Chory the emergence of seedlings from the
soil andWeigel flowering time – both of these
traits are influenced by light and are
important for plants’ fitness in the wild.
Following their work on the FT gene, they
formed a joint program at Salk in 1998 to
study genetic variation and adaptation using
a collection of Arabidopsis strains from
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 boggledWeigel’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 of
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
“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
Inside Salk October 2008
Detlef Weigel
Chris Lamb
Joanne Chory
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