Two plant biologists at the University of California, Davis, have been selected among the first-ever class of HHMI-GBMF Investigators, funded jointly by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
Simon Chan, assistant professor in the Department of Plant Biology, College of Biological Sciences, and Jorge Dubcovsky, professor in the Department of Plant Sciences, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, are among 15 recipients nationwide of the new awards program, to be supported with $75 million from the two organizations over the next five years.
Their awards will cover their salaries and benefits for five years and provide funds for equipment, lab space and to support their research, relieving them of the need to seek other grants. Both scientists pursue research with the potential to help avert a looming global food crisis.
“I congratulate professors Chan and Dubcovsky on this great honor, to be recognized by these leading foundations as two of the most innovative plant scientists in the country,” said UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi. “It is also tremendous recognition for UC Davis as a whole, as one of the nation’s — and the world’s — leading centers for research in plant biology, making advances that will bring benefits in food production, as well as in health, energy and the environment.”
Ken Burtis, dean of the College of Biological Sciences, described Chan as an inspired teacher and mentor to graduate and undergraduate students. "Simon Chan was an outstanding choice to become an HHMI-GBMF investigator,” Burtis said. “His work on plant chromosomes is leading to both fundamental insights into mechanisms of genetic inheritance, as well as practical applications that will accelerate the breeding of crop plants.”
Neal Van Alfen, dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, called Dubcovsky’s selection “a tremendous and well-deserved honor."
"His work to enhance the nutrition and hardiness of commercial wheat varieties is one of our finest examples of melding basic and applied research,” Van Alfen said. “Its impact on the lives of millions of people around the world will be felt for decades to come."
Chan said he was thrilled with the award. “It’s fantastic recognition, and for them to extend this opportunity to plant biologists is amazing,” he said.
“It’s really a recognition for UC Davis,” Chan said. “I’m very happy to be in company with Jorge (Dubcovsky) — he’s inspirational.”
Chan plans to use the funds to continue his work on new techniques in plant breeding. Working with the laboratory plant Arabidopsis, his laboratory has discovered ways to breed plants with genes from only one parent, and to clone plants as seeds. Chan now plans to expand this work to crop plants, such as tomatoes and Chinese cabbage, that take longer to grow.
Dubcovsky plans to continue developing new genetic resources to improve wheat, one of the most widely grown cereal crops on the planet. The Dubcovsky lab has identified and cloned genes involved in disease resistance, protein content, and flowering and frost tolerance, helping breeders develop high-yield varieties that are more nutritious and resistant to disease.
“I am very honored and grateful to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation for investing in agricultural development,” Dubcovsky said. “This is such a unique program, and we will use it to help address the global food crisis by working to improve the value of wheat.”
The HHMI and the Moore Foundation announced the new program to support plant scientists last fall. “Despite the central role plants play in maintaining human health and in health care, basic research in the plant sciences has been historically underfunded,” the announcement said.
Dubcovsky and Chan become the second and third UC Davis faculty to receive appointments with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The first was Associate Professor of Microbiology Neil Hunter, who was appointed as an HHMI Early Career Scientist in 2009.