College of LAS « Illinois

College of LAS alumna wins Breakthrough Prize

Joanne Chory, a preeminent plant biologist, earned graduate degrees in microbiology at Illinois

Joanne Chory, an alumna of the College of LAS, has received the prestigious 2018 Breakthrough Prize. (Image courtesy of Salk Institute.)
Joanne Chory, an alumna of the College of LAS, has received the prestigious 2018 Breakthrough Prize. (Image courtesy of Salk Institute.)
Joanne Chory (MS, ’80, PhD, ’84, microbiology), who graduated from Illinois to eventually become one of the world’s preeminent plant biologists, has been awarded a 2018 Breakthrough Prize for her pioneering work deciphering how plants optimize their growth, development, and cellular structure to transform sunlight into chemical energy.

The prestigious award, founded in 2013 by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, and Yuri and Julia Milner, honors top achievements in life sciences, physics, and mathematics.

Chory, a professor and director of the Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, received the prize, which included a $3 million award, at a televised event at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

“By celebrating science and recognizing its importance to our world, the visionary founders of the Breakthrough Prize are having a significant impact on promoting life-changing discovery and encouraging bright young minds to bring their talents to these exciting fields,” said Chory, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and holder of the Howard H. and Maryam R. Newman Chair in Plant Biology. “I’m truly honored to receive this award, humbled to be in such distinguished company and tremendously gratified that the study of plants, which is essential to developing everything from better agricultural practices to mitigating global warming, has been put in the spotlight with this award.”

Plants must constantly adapt their shapes and sizes to an ever-changing environment. Chory has spent more than 25 years deciphering the mechanisms that allow plants to achieve this flexibility in form, pioneering the use of molecular genetics to study how plants respond to their environments and producing major discoveries surrounding how plants sense light and make growth hormones.

More recently, Chory has teamed up with other plant biologists at the Salk Institute to turn their knowledge of plant biology into practical solutions for tackling global warming. Their recently launched Harnessing Plants Initiative hinges on developing what they’ve dubbed “ideal plants” to help tackle the critical and interlinked challenges of human emissions of carbon dioxide, declining agricultural yields and collapsing ecosystems. At the same time, these ideal plants will help meet the burgeoning demands of a rapidly growing human population for plant products.

A major focus of the initiative is to develop crops that are able to capture large amounts of carbon in their roots and store the carbon in the ground for long periods of time. In addition to land plants, the Salk team plans to extend their research to seagrasses, one of the other major repositories of the planet’s carbon. Maintaining existing seagrass ecosystems and restoring others offers a clear-cut solution to addressing climate change.

“Humanity is at a crossroads,” says Chory. “In the coming decades, as the human population increases from 7 billion to 10 billion or more, we are going to put incredible pressure on the planet’s ability to support us. Global warming is going to make providing for this population very difficult, if not impossible, and we desperately need ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Plants can be a critical part of the solution.”

Chory did her doctoral research in the lab of Samuel Kaplan, former chair of the Department of Microbiology (within the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology) and director of the former School of Life Sciences. She joined the faculty of the Salk Institute in 1988 as one of the first plant biologists at the Institute.

In 2003, she was named Scientific American’s Research Leader in Agriculture, and in 2016 she made Thomson Reuter’s list of the World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds. She is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the German National Academy of Sciences (Leopoldina), the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She also is a foreign member of the Royal Society of London and a foreign affiliate of the French Academy of Science.

The Breakthrough Prize awards are funded by the Brin Wojcicki Foundation; Mark Zuckerberg’s fund at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation; the Jack Ma Foundation; and the Milner Global Foundation. Winners are chosen by selection committees comprised of prior Breakthrough Prize laureates.

Adapted from a release by the Salk Institute.

Related Topics

  • Microbiology
  • Alumni Honors