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Listen or download interview (mp3, 19 minutes, 19MB)
Elliot Meyerowitz doesn’t remember what first drew him to science or why. His interest was always there, he says, and it led him to pioneer the study of Arabidopsis thaliana, a flowering plant related to mustard, as a model organism for plant development. By sequencing, cloning and studying Arabidopsis genes, Meyerowitz and his colleagues shed new light on cell and organ development and revolutionized the study of plant physiology and genetics.
For these contributions, Meyerowitz has won several prizes, including the 1999 Richard Lounsbery award and the 2006 Balzan Prize, a prestigious award sometimes referred to as the “Italian Nobel.” He currently chairs the Division of Biology at the California Institute of Technology and serves as George W. Beadle Professor of Biology there. He has been a member of the National Academy of Sciences since 1995.
As a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford, Meyerowitz learns how to apply then-fledgling recombinant DNA technology, making and replicating artificial DNA to fly genetics. He then enters the job market and, as one of only a handful of researchers at that time well-versed in recombinant DNA, quickly lands a position as an assistant professor at Caltech. He starts his own lab and continues his fruitfly research. But teaching a class on plant genetics and talking with graduate student Robert Pruitt, who had experience with plant research, spark a new interest for Meyerowitz: applying his techniques to a genetically simple, fast-growing mustard called Arabidopsis thaliana.
After measuring and mapping Arabidopsis’s genome and establishing the plant as a model organism, Meyerowitz, Pruitt and their growing cohort of collaborators begin to deconstruct the flower. They look at the organs that make up a flower: sepals, petals, stamens, and carpels. By altering genes in Arabidopsis seeds and watching the resulting flowers mature some with stamens where their petals normally would be, or sepals where their carpels would be they develop a model for how genes govern organ identity and development. More recently, Meyerowitz’s lab focuses on live imaging techniques to monitor every moment of Arabidopsis development, and on mathematical equations to describe what they’re seeing in a precise, predictive way.
Last Updated: 06-08-2009
The audio files linked above are part of the National Academy of Sciences InterViews series. Opinions and statements included in these audio files are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Academy of Sciences.