The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has appointed 15 new investigators to its club of well-funded whizzes—all of them plant scientists. What is a medical research organization doing funding plant science? Well, first off, they have joined forces with the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which has funded a broader range of scientific fields. The two will pony up a combined $75 million for the 15 investigators over 5 years.
Secondly, bigwigs at both institutions have apparently shared the general worry about lack of funding for basic plant science. “Compared to China, India and Europe, the field is dramatically underfunded, but it is extremely important,” says Vicki Chandler, Chief Program Officer for Science at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. For more on that funding gap, check out this recent plea for basic research funding from the Global Harvest Initiative, a partnership of ag giants Archer Daniels Midland Company, DuPont, John Deere and Monsanto. The recent creation of a new agency at the Department of Agriculture—NIFA, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture—was meant to fill some of that gap, but its founding head has recently left its direction in doubt (see our story) and critics say its budget is too puny.
Thirdly, HHMI figures that health depends greatly on diet, and a large part of the human diet is, after all, plants. And plants and people aren’t that different when you get right down to the nitty gritty of genes and molecules. “There is a lot of excellent research going on in plants that impacts humans in different ways: drug discovery, epigenetics, genotype-phenotype interactions,” says Chandler.
The lucky winners (out of a pool of almost 250 applicants) are listed here. Among them are Duke root-wrangler Philip Benfey, flower-formation focused Xuemei Chen of UC Riverside, bacterial pathogen guru Sheng Yang He of Michigan State University and discoverer of plant development genes Keiko Torii from the University of Washington.
“The message is plants are fundamentally important, whether you are targeting research in health, energy, environment or food,” sums up Chandler.
img cc Benjamin Zwittnig