Introduction: Welcome to the Salk Institute’s Where Cures Begin podcast, where scientists talk about breakthrough discoveries, with your hosts Allie Akmal and Brittany Fair.
Brittany Fair: I’m here today with Dr. Joanne Chory. She’s among the world leaders in the study of plant responses to changes and their environment, including climate change. She has pioneered the use of molecular genetics to study how plants alter their size, shape, and form to optimize growth and photosynthesis for particular environments. Chory’s prolific research career has had a huge impact on the field of plant biology. She is now stepping into a new phase of research, one that she is excited to talk about on our show today.
Brittany Fair: In recent years, Dr. Chory has also won numerous awards, including the Breakthrough Prize. Despite having Parkinson’s disease, which is a neurodegenerative disease that primarily affects a person’s ability to move, so you may hear her tapping or sounding a little breathless during this podcast. Dr. Chory, welcome to Where Cures Begin.
Joanne Chory: Hi, Brittany.
Brittany Fair: Hi. So let’s start with a very basic question: what is the difference between a botanist, a plant biologist, and a plant geneticist?
Joanne Chory: For me, a botanist is someone who knows a lot about all the species of plants that are out there in nature. And so I wouldn’t call myself a botanist because I know insides of plants better than outsides, you know what I mean? So I bust open a plant and take out the DNA, I can relate to the genes, but I don’t really know if it’s a Melaleuca tree or a California wild oak. But I would call myself overall a plant geneticist, I think, because that’s really what has driven the projects in my lab over the last 30 years, it’s a genetic approach.
Brittany Fair: And what do you mean by a “genetic approach”?
Joanne Chory: So what a genetic approach does is it allows you to take away the function of, say, one gene out of the 30,000 genes that that plant has, and then what went wrong when you took that gene away.
Brittany Fair: Okay, so you’re basically taking away one gene at a time and seeing how that affects the plant, in order to deduce the function of the gene?
Joanne Chory: Yeah, that’s right.
Brittany Fair: So how did you become interested in studying plant biology and plant genetics?
Joanne Chory: Well, I did my PhD in Microbiology, I worked in bacteria, and I was at the University of Illinois, and they had this great bacteriology department, where people worked on all these different kinds of wild bacteria. But when I was graduating, I wanted to do a more sophisticated organism, and so I was like, “What are the good models … maybe plants would be kind of interesting!” And so plants were just starting to make the big-time in 1983, but the idea was that I could really make an impact if I worked on plants. I go, “These people know nothing about how that plant is growing,” and I liked the lab I picked, which was Fred Ausubel’s lab. The reason why I liked him is he sat me in his office and he told me all the people he had trained and how well they were doing, what they were working on, and he seemed really proud of the people he had trained, and I go, “What a great mentor.”
Brittany Fair: Wow. What type of plants did you work on in his lab?
Joanne Chory: I worked on this plant called Arabidopsis thaliana, which I still work on, 31 years later.
Brittany Fair: And what have you discovered over the past 35 years, by studying this small mustard plant?
Joanne Chory: I think the biggest result of my career really was the fact that we discovered that plants actually make steroid hormones and they use these steroid hormones the way animals do, and that is to buff themselves up and get big and strong. So I’m like, “All right, that’s pretty cool,” so that got us a nice paper in Science.”
Brittany Fair: And how does this knowledge help you alter or change plants?
Joanne Chory: Yeah, so that knowledge tells us that we can make a plant any size.
Brittany Fair: You’re clearly very passionate about your work, what is your favorite part about being a scientist?
Joanne Chory: I just love having new discovery. Some graduate students come in, they’re pretty mature, they can do stuff and they get results. But most graduate students are not really at that place in life, and so if they stay in the game and have a little grit, they often get a really good result, and so when you see that, it just makes it all worthwhile.
Brittany Fair: You are now leading Salk’s Harnessing Plants Initiative, this huge initiative, and what problem is the initiative trying to solve?
Joanne Chory: Well, I think the short answer is we’re trying to help the planet get over this climate change crisis that we’re in, and we think plants can play a role, and that is the fact that they can suck up a greenhouse gas, called CO2, carbon dioxide. But, yeah, I believe that global warming is causing climate change, and climate change is going to cause a lot of disruptions into human life as we know it. I just feel like … We spent 30 years understanding how plants grow, and all that growth is really related to photosynthesis, and photosynthesis is the process by which plants suck up the CO2 from the atmosphere, and they add a little water, and they use sunlight to split that water and make oxygen, and that’s how animals evolved because we need oxygen. Plant biology has largely been ignored, which is a big mistake.
Brittany Fair: Why do you think plant biology’s been ignored?
Joanne Chory: It’s because plants are so different than us. I think that the whole life strategy is so different from the human life strategy that people just don’t relate. An embryo becomes a fetus and then it becomes a human; but, for a plant, the seed is what becomes the next plant, it’s totally different, it’s not growing in the mother’s body or anything, it just blows away and finds a spot where it looks like the sunlight is located, and it pops up, and then off it goes. That’s really different, the evolution for plants is really different, too.
Joanne Chory: But plants have had a lot more time to evolve than people, because human life’s only like 50,000 years old. Even sophisticated flowering plants have been around to about 500 million years, and photosynthesis as a process, and microbes has been around for over four billion, so they’ve had a lot of time to evolve. So these organisms are really good at what they do, sucking up CO2. And so when people say they want to build these big machines to suck up CO2, I go, “Why?” We have plants growing all over the planet, and they all have adapted to the place they’re growing, and so why not just let them do it? And so we figured out we can’t just let plants do it the way they are doing it now because there is not enough land to feed 10 or 11 billion people by the end of the century, and at the same time, keep all that CO2 out of the atmosphere.
Brittany Fair: The Salk Institute’s Harnessing Plants Initiative can help draw down and store more carbon in order to help mitigate the disastrous effects of climate change while providing more food, fuel, and fiber for a growing population.
Joanne Chory: The latest IPCC report, and this is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said 2030, we’re not going back to where the Earth used to be. We have 10 years, there’s an urgency there. All the ice is going away, and where that ice is going, no one is really quite sure what’s going to happen, but they think the temperature is going to go up by five degrees, and if it goes up by five degrees Celsius, the ocean is going to rise by more than two meters, that’s more than a six-foot tall man. And so if that happens, a lot of the coast is going to be ruined because we’ve already kind of imposed ourselves on the coastlines anyway, and they’re not really protecting or making land the way they used to, because people are all living there. We’re going to try to do this, what we want to do in our initiative because we think the hope …
Joanne Chory: So I have a wake-up call for anybody out there who thinks they’re working in an area related to climate change, but we have to also draw down some of the CO2 we’ve already put up there, and the only way to do that, that I can see, is by capturing CO2, and plants are going to do it way better than any machine. And people will say, “What can I do? Should I drive an electric car?” Well you can drive an electric car, that’s a nice idea. But I can tell you this fact: if every car in the United States became an electric car today, it’s not making a global impact with the amount of CO2 we put out. So you still have to just suck it out of there somehow, and the only way I can see of doing it is by having a number of different approaches that involve nature and humans acting together.
Joanne Chory: Governments will have to make a choice: do we let the world heat up or do we feed all these people? And so we’re hoping that our plants will be enough better to have a positive impact on yields, and then also it can draw down some of the CO2 that’s making us heat. The planet is heating at a rate that’s way too fast, it’s unprecedented, you don’t see anything in the fossil record saying the planet has heated that fast, and so there’s already been distinction of over half the species on Earth because of global warming, these weather extremes that you get.
Brittany Fair: You recently spoke for a Ted Talk, which now has over a million views.
Joanne Chory: I recently had an epiphany, I realized that I could actually play a role in solving one of the biggest problems that faces mankind today, and that is the problem of climate change. I have Parkinson’s for the last 15 years, and this gives me a sense of urgency that I want to do this now, while I feel good enough to really be part of this change-
Brittany Fair: Can you share a little bit about that and how that’s impacted this work?
Joanne Chory: Yeah. It gives me more of the sense of urgency, and also I live for the day a lot more than I used to, I think, because I don’t know when I wake up how I’m going to feel, so I might have a good day, I might have a bad day, you have to kind of go with the flow. It also teaches you humility. I’m always walking around, looking like I need help, and so everyone at Salk has been great, it’s a wonderful family for me, in that sense. But my own family, it’s had an impact because when your kids are little and they don’t know how you’re going to feel when you wake up, that’s not good, and so I did my best to hide it all from them until they got older, but now my symptoms are bad enough I just can’t hide them anymore.
Joanne Chory: Those are the kinds of things you have to learn when you get a chronic disease, it has an impact visually on people because you see people looking at you weird, you have to get used to that idea. I think sometimes people think I’m drunk or something, I’m like all breathy like during this podcast. And then I’m talking away, and then my hands are moving all around, and so you just kind of have to laugh at yourself. So I’ve learned a lot from having this disease, I’ve learned it’s not really good to have a life plan that goes on for 50 years. I always was like that though, so I’m just even more like that now, I think.
Joanne Chory: But a lot of people have their life plan, and when you’re 20, you think you can dictate everything, “I’m going to have my first child when I’m 27, it’s going to be a girl, and she’s going to be really nice,” or whatever, and you go, “That might not happen.” I’ve talked to a lot of young graduate students because I get asked to do seminars about what it takes to be a successful woman scientist, everybody wants to hear about that, and I say, “Well you have to first define success for yourself, what’s going to make you happy?” And so once you do that, I think it becomes more obvious how you get there.
Joanne Chory: For different people, it’s going to be different things, and so, for me, it was always my students, I think and postdocs. I really wanted them to do well, and my kids, too. And so I had kids late in life, but I always tell my lab, “You’ve prepared me well for my kids,” like my lab never calls me up unless they need something, as well as my kids. And so like, “Okay, you’re all safe.” But I think it’s been fun, overall. I do have a sense of urgency because Parkinson’s is a disease of aging, and I’m 64, but I feel like I’m 85. Some days, it’s just like really hard. The science prepares you well for life, I guess, because you have to try to find solutions, and you have to do it in a way that is looking for the truth, not just looking for an answer.
Brittany Fair: Did you ever consider another career besides being a scientist?
Joanne Chory: Yeah, I came to science late. I was absorbing Russian novels and stuff like that, and so, “Should I think of doing something else?” I don’t know if I had another plan, but it wasn’t necessarily science, you know what I mean? I was open to anything when I went to college, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. But if I could do anything now, what would it be? I don’t know, I’d be a really good athlete. I know it’s impossible for me to be right now, but, anyway, that may be fun, just to be coordinated for a day, I’ll take that.
Brittany Fair: Do you have any advice for aspiring scientists who are interested in plant biology or plant genetics?
Joanne Chory: Pick an advisor that can remember the humility of their own experience. I think as an advisor, if you really there’s a spark in your student, you can keep them in the game.
Brittany Fair: What do you think the future holds for plant biology?
Joanne Chory: The future for plant biology is going to be in translating what we learned during these past 30 years of our Golden Age into something in the field that is going to impact human life.
Brittany Fair: This has been a fascinating conversation, Dr. Chory, thank you so much for coming onto the podcast and sharing with us your research and your future endeavors.
Joanne Chory: Thank you for having me.
Brittany Fair: By understanding and improving a few genetic pathways in plants, Dr. Chory’s team of plant biologists believe they can help mitigate the effects of climate change by helping plants store more carbon in their root systems, thus reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide. If you’re interested in learning more about Dr. Chory and her work, visit Salk.edu/harnessingplants.
Speaker 1: Join us next time for more cutting edge Salk science. At Salk, world-renowned scientists work together to explore big, bold ideas, from cancer, to Alzheimer’s, aging, to climate change. Where Cures Begin is a production of the Salk Institute’s Office of Communications. To learn more about the research discussed today, visit Salk.edu/podcasts.