June 16, 2011

Boost for plant scientists, including UW prof, comes at critical time

News and Information

Keiko Torii, University of Washington professor of biology, is among 15 of the “nations most innovative plant scientists” selected to share $75 million for fundamental plant science research, according to an announcement June 16 from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Both organizations say the investment is critical to meet the worlds food needs in the face of increasing world population and pressures to raise crops for fuel. Despite the central role plants play in maintaining human health and healthcare, basic research in plant sciences represents only 2 percent of overall life sciences spending by the federal government.

Keiko Torii

Stephen Brashear/AP ©HHMI

Keiko Torii

Torii and her laboratory group study the genetics underlying plant development with, for example,  a key paper published in Science in 2005 and another in 2007. Plants adjust in response to drought and other environmental conditions so work led by Torii to better understand the underlying processes should help predict how well crops, trees and other plants cope with climate change and other threats.

“I had been reconsidering my career as a basic plant developmental biologist in the U.S., due to the difficulty of acquiring federal funding,” Torii says. “I thought I might have to reorient my focus. The extraordinary opportunity offered by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation enables me to go back to the basics and explore the fundamental questions in plant development.”

Torii is the only researcher in the Pacific Northwest named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute-Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation investigator.  The institute is known for advancing biomedical research in the U.S., and the foundation supports environmental conservation and research worldwide.

This joint sponsorship makes this a brand new category of investigators. It is an offshoot of Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s long-standing investigator program, which currently includes 11 UW faculty members, all in medicine and health sciences. Torii is the first from the College of Arts and Sciences.

“This is an extremely important and gratifying award for the College of Arts and Sciences,” says Ana Mari Cauce, dean of the college. “It really shows an increasing awareness of how basic scientific research provides the building blocks for innovations that will lead to important breakthroughs in crop and energy biomass production that benefit our society. It also is a wonderful example of the important role that women play in scientific discovery.”

The institute and foundation did not announce the amounts of individual awards but said during a five-year period investigators will receive their full salary and benefits as well as some research support.

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For more information:
Torii, 206-221-5701, 206 221-5756 or ktorii@u.washington.edu