Joanne Chory, PhD, of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., entered the field of molecular biology during the 1980s, when plant research primarily involved maize and other food crops. Chory decided, however, to focus on Arabidopsis thaliana, a small flowering mustard plant, which was just emerging as a possible model for the study of plant genetics. In what is now considered a seminal experiment, Chory showed that when A. thaliana was germinated in complete darkness, a genetic flaw led to the creation of odd mutant plants with white leaves. She then set about analyzing the molecular pathways of those mutants, publishing the results in the journal Cell in 1989.
Despite skepticism from many molecular plant biologists that a single genetic flaw could impede a plant’s response to light, Chory persevered with her research. A string of remarkable findings followed. Chory announced in 1996 that her lab had discovered a new class of plant hormones — brassinosteroids — that play a crucial role in how plants respond to light. At that time, biologists did not believe plants used steroids as hormones. Chory went on to identify the cell receptor for brassinosteroids — the first confirmed steroid receptor in plants — and, eventually, to describe the entire brassinosteroid signaling pathway. Groundbreaking work on other plant hormones followed, including a series of findings regarding the biosynthesis and mode of action of auxin, a hormone that promotes, among other activities, plant stem and root growth. Chory’s lab also pioneered the use of genetic analysis to assign functions to each of more than a dozen plant photoreceptors, the tools used by plants to adapt quickly when their environment changes. More recently, Chory has helped launch the Harnessing Plants Initiative, whose goal is to develop plants that can more efficiently store carbon to reduce global warming.
Chory is considered one of the preeminent plant biologists in the world. Her work has transformed our understanding of how plants respond to changes in their environment — findings that have profound implications for other organisms and for the fields of agriculture, environmental science, and human health.