Elliot Meyerowitz, PhD, of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, Calif., began his career in molecular biology working on fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster), but by the mid-1980s found himself more interested in plants. He was intrigued by some of the genetic aspects of plants that weren’t easily explained by the molecular biology known at that time. Plant genetics had no unified research model, however — a major impediment to the field. Meyerowitz set out to fix that problem with Arabidopsis thaliana, a small, flowering mustard plant. In a series of groundbreaking experiments, Meyerowitz demonstrated that the genome of A. thaliana had important characteristics that made it an extremely useful research model, most notably a small set of genes and very little repetitive DNA. He then created a molecular gene map for Arabidopsis — the first one devised for a plant — which he made accessible to anyone who wanted to use it. With a unified model now established, the field of plant genetics took off.
Meyerowitz continued to break new ground. Using Arabidopsis mutants, his lab developed the ABC model of flower organ development, which describes how the expression of three classes of genes leads to the development of flowers. This now-classic model has made it possible to control the timing and formation of flowers, a major breakthrough in helping to increase the yield of food crops. Other major achievements included isolating the first receptor for the growth-regulating hormone ethylene and then identifying the family of proteins that encoded it. Meyerowitz also developed a model for how stem cells in a plant’s shoot apical meristem (above-ground growing tip) guides the lateral positioning of flowers. In addition, he has been a leader in the computational modeling of plant patterning and growth, a field that promises to revolutionize plant development biology.