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2018 Genetics Prize

Elliot Meyerowitz

While growing up in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., Elliot Meyerowitz developed a deep interest in science. “I don’t really know why,” he says, “as neither of my parents were scientists.” While in high school, Meyerowitz spent two summers working in a science laboratory at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. “It wasn’t an especially scientific job. Mostly I cleaned rat cages,” he recalls with a laugh. “But it was interesting — and it was a job, which I needed.”

Meyerowitz had prepared to go to the local University of Maryland after high school, but his 11th grade chemistry teacher recommended he apply to Columbia University in New York. He entered the university in 1969 on a scholarship, and was quickly drawn to the biology department, which had just begun to embrace the emerging field of molecular biology. While an undergraduate, Meyerowitz worked in the molecular biology lab of Cyrus Levinthal, where he used a combination of microscopic and computational methods to trace axon branching networks in the brains of fish embryos. “I can see that what I did then is what I’m still doing now,” Meyerowitz says. “In that sense, my approach hasn’t changed much.” 

Hooked on developmental biology, Meyerowitz entered Yale University’s biology PhD program in 1973. Working on fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) in the developmental genetics lab of Douglas Kankel, Meyerowitz showed how axons growing in from the developing eye were essential to the subsequent organization of the optic lobes. “That topic is still very much under study today,” he says. After completing his PhD in 1977, Meyerowitz crossed the country to do his postdoc at David Hogness’s molecular biology lab at Stanford University. “That was around the time that the molecular cloning of eukaryotic genes was just getting underway,” he recalls. “It was clear that there was a frontier there.” While at Stanford, Meyerowitz studied the gene organization of the salivary gland of Drosophila and also contributed to some of the first Drosophila genomic libraries. 

In 1980, Meyerowitz joined the faculty of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, where he gradually switched his research focus from fruit flies to plants. “It was a slow process, but I already had an interest in plants,” he says. “There were some interesting phenomena in the genetics of plants that weren’t easily explained by the genetics at that time.” Plant molecular biology had a major problem, however: It lacked a unified research model. Meyerowitz set out to change that situation with Arabidopsis thaliana, a small, easily cultivated mustard plant. In a series of groundbreaking experiments published in the mid-1980s Meyerowitz demonstrated that the genome of A. thaliana is smaller than nearly all other plant species and that it contains very little repetitive DNA — two characteristics that made it an extremely useful research model. Meyerowitz then created a molecular linkage map for Arabidopsis — the first one devised for a plant — and made it available to anyone who wanted to use it. Broad recognition for Arabidopsis came, however, a few years later, when Elliot’s lab developed the ABC model of flower organ development. Based on observations of Arabidopsis mutants with altered flower development, this model describes how the expression of three classes of genes (A, B, and C) cause flowers to form, not only in the tiny mustard plant, but in all flowering plants. The finding has had major implications for human health and nutrition, for controlling the timing and form of flowers makes it possible to increase the yield of seeds — and food crops. 

Other groundbreaking research followed. Meyerowitz helped to isolate the receptor for ethylene, a critical hormone that regulates many aspects of growth and development in plants, including the ripening of fruit. His lab then showed that this receptor was encoded by a family of proteins that had been previously known to control cellular responses in bacteria, but not in higher organisms. Other major contributions to plant molecular genetics from Meyerowitz’s lab include the development of a model for how a plant’s shoot apical meristem (its above-ground growing tip) guides the lateral positioning of flowers. In addition, Meyerowitz has also been a tireless leader in the computational modeling of plant patterning and growth. When the pathways of regulatory plant genes are written down on a paper, “you end up with a diagram that looks like a plate of spaghetti,” he explains. “If you get past three genes, it’s incomprehensible. Putting these diagrams into computers and making a mathematical model rather than a spaghetti one makes them much more useful.” This new field, which Meyerowitz calls computational morphodynamics, is revolutionizing plant developmental biology.

Meyerowitz continues to pursue his research at Caltech, where he is the George W. Beadle Professor of Biology and an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He has received numerous honors and awards for his work, including memberships in the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is also a foreign member of the Royal Society and a foreign affiliate of the French Academy of Sciences. Meyerowitz lives in San Marino, California with his wife, Joan Kobori. They have two grown sons, Joseph and Matthew.