Joanne Chory awarded prestigious Breakthrough Prize

Created in 2013 by Silicon Valley luminaries Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, and Yuri and Julia Milner, this prestigious award honors top scientists for their achievements in the life sciences, physics and mathematics.

Chory, professor and director of the Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory, received the $3 million prize on December 3, 2017, during a televised event at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

Because plants are rooted in the ground, they must constantly adapt their shapes and sizes to an ever-changing environment. Chory has spent more than 25 years deciphering the mechanisms that help plants achieve this flexibility. She pioneered the use of molecular genetics to understand the mechanisms that help plants respond to their environments, leading to important discoveries that showcased how plants sense light and make growth hormones.

More recently, Chory teamed up with other plant biologists at the Salk Institute to turn their hard-won knowledge into practical solutions to tackle perhaps the greatest challenge facing the planet: climate change. They recently launched the Harnessing Plants Initiative to develop Salk Ideal Plants to help address human carbon dioxide emissions, declining agricultural yields and collapsing ecosystems. These plants may also help meet the rapidly growing human population’s burgeoning need for food and other plant products.

“Humanity is at a crossroads,” said Chory. “In the coming decades, as the human population increases from 7 billion to 10 billion or more, we are going to put incredible pressure on the planet’s ability to support us. Global warming is going to make providing for this population very difficult, if not impossible, and we desperately need ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Plants can be a critical part of the solution.”

The Way of the Rain

On November 17, science and art joined forces as environmental artist Sibylle Szaggars Redford gave a Salk audience a sneak peek of her new project: The Way of the Rain – Voices of Hope. The event supported Salk’s Harnessing Plants Initiative, an ambitious effort to develop plants that can help reduce greenhouse gases and restore damaged ecosystems.

A powerhouse plant biology team at Salk—Wolfgang Busch, Joanne Chory, Joseph Ecker, Julie Law and Joseph Noel—is focusing on creating plants that more efficiently capture and store carbon. This biology-based solution could reverse lost soil carbon, enhance plant survival and boost crop yields, particularly in agriculturally challenged ecosystems.

Szaggars Redford celebrated the initiative’s launch with a multimedia show, featuring Native American flute player Robert Mirabal, Celtic musicians, and Szaggars Redford’s own brightly painted organic silk backdrops. Szaggars Redford’s husband, actor/director Robert Redford, and Pulitzer Prize–winning poet N. Scott Momaday made guest appearances.

Drawing inspiration from ancient cultures and threatened ecosystems, Szaggars Redford, in collaboration with composer and artist Tim Janis, uses her art to raise environmental awareness and inspire others to take action. The performance combined dancing, singing, narration, poetry and film to create a profound sensory experience. The Salk performance was the first of several, including the official Carnegie Hall premiere on December 1, 2017.

The show highlighted the climate’s beauty and fragility, but also pointed to possible solutions, such as the Salk team’s efforts to develop plants that can mitigate human disruptions to the carbon cycle. Salk’s “ideal plants” will be able to sequester carbon more efficiently than other plants and buy the planet more time as people and governments cope with a growing human population and dramatic climate change.

To read more about the Harnessing Plants Initiative, please visit:

Salk scientists receive $1.5 million to study firefighter health

The lab of Salk Professor Satchidananda Panda and UC San Diego School of Medicine researchers have been awarded a $1.5 million grant by the Department of Homeland Security for a three-year study to see whether restricting food intake to a 10-hour window can improve the health of firefighters, who are at high risk for many chronic diseases because of how shift work disrupts the body’s natural rhythms.

Panda, whose laboratory studies the molecular bases of circadian (daily) timekeeping in mammals, previously found that restricting  the access of lab mice to food for 8–10 hours a day resulted in slimmer, healthier animals compared to mice that ate the same number of calories around the clock. Preliminary studies in humans suggest similar health benefits of such “time-restricted eating,” which does not change the quality or quantity of food, just the time period in which it is consumed.

Salk Trustee Sanjay Jha nominated to National Academy of Engineering

Salk Trustee and Globalfoundries Inc. CEO Sanjay Jha was nominated to the National Academy of Engineering “for leadership in the design and development of semiconductor technology enabling universal digital access.”

Prior to joining Globalfoundries, Jha served as chairman and CEO of Motorola Mobility, which was spun out as an independent public company from Motorola Inc. in early 2011. Before that, he held multiple senior engineering and executive positions over 14 years at Qualcomm Inc., where he ultimately served as executive vice president and chief operating officer (COO). Jha has a PhD in Electronic and Electrical Engineering from Scotland’s University of Strathclyde.

Election to the National Academy of Engineering is among the highest professional distinctions accorded to an engineer. The newly elected class will be formally inducted during a ceremony at the NAE’s annual meeting in Washington, DC, on September 30, 2018.

Salk researchers awarded $2.5 million for innovative pancreatic cancer clinical trial

As part of a multi-institution team, Salk professor and HHMI Investigator Ronald Evans has been awarded $2.5 million by Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) to help improve immunotherapy for pancreatic cancer. The group will conduct clinical studies to test whether a form of modified  vitamin D, developed in Evans’ lab, will make the Merck checkpoint inhibitor pembrolizumab (Keytruda®) more effective.

While pancreatic tumors normally rebuff immune T-cells, the modified vitamin D reprograms the tumor microenvironment to allow these cells access. The researchers believe this altered microenvironment, combined with pembrolizumab’s ability to take the brakes off T-cells, will spur the immune system to attack and destroy pancreatic tumors.

The award is part of SU2C Catalyst® and is supported by Merck.

Roger Guillemin’s Alma Mater Renames SPACE in His Honor

Roger Guillemin received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1977 for shedding new light on peptide hormones in the brain. To honor him for this and many other accomplishments, the Université de Montréal has renamed the University Assembly Hall to Salle Roger-Guillemin.

An honorary plaque, highlighting Guillemin’s exceptional career, has been placed at the entrance.

In 1953, after studying medicine in Lyon, Guillemin defended his doctoral dissertation on endocrinology at the Université de Montréal. Soon after, his career took him to Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.  In 1970, Guillemin joined the Salk Institute to head the newly established Laboratories for Neuroendocrinology. Considered the founder of neuroendocrinology, Guillemin is a scientific pioneer whose research led to treatments for many disorders—from infertility to pituitary tumors.

Gerald Joyce named 2017 AAAS Fellow for contributions to science

Professor Gerald Joyce has been a named a 2017 Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest general scientific society. His work has had a profound impact on our understanding of Darwinian evolution at the molecular level.

Joyce, a professor in Salk’s Jack H. Skirball Center for Chemical Biology and Proteomics, is a pioneer of in vitro evolution (evolving molecules in a test tube). While DNA is the code for life, its single-stranded counterpart, RNA, shares top billing and has profound effects on development and disease. It’s likely that RNA was DNA’s ancestor during the early history of life on Earth.

Joyce and colleagues seek to recreate early biomolecules in test tubes, coaxing RNA’s building blocks to assemble, replicate and evolve. Although scientists can’t know exactly how the first genetic molecules developed 4 billion years ago, recreating plausible facsimiles in the lab may provide insights into early evolutionary processes and lead to synthetic RNA molecules that could potentially treat cancer, immune defects, viral infections and other conditions.

Seed-Planting Robot Successfully Crowdfunded

Spearheaded by Salk plant biologist Wolfgang Busch, the Institute has successfully completed a $313,840 crowdfunding effort to purchase a fast, seed-planting robot. The campaign exceeded its goal, bringing in more than $334,000 with the help of  long-time Salk supporters Larry and Carol Greenfield, who matched the first $150,000 in donations.

The robot brings high-throughput to planting, performing as many experiments in a single day as a human researcher could complete in five weeks. The system transfers seeds with incredibly high precision, conducting the same motions millions of times—without the barriers of fatigue, boredom or other human limitations.

Busch and his team will use the robot to test hundreds of seed and environmental variations in the lab to better understand how plants respond to different environments and other aspects of  plant biology. Their ultimate goal is to develop a new generation of plants that can grow in the most challenging conditions.

Joanne Chory and Terrence Sejnowski named to National Academy of Inventors

Professors Joanne Chory and Terrence Sejnowski have been elected Fellows of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI). In addition to directing the Salk Institute’s Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory, Chory is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and holds the Howard H. and Maryam R. Newman Chair in Plant Biology. Sejnowski heads the Institute’s Computational Neurobiology Laboratory and holds the Francis Crick Chair.

NAI Fellows are honored for their prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions and advances that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society.

Chory has spent more than two decades studying the mechanisms that allow plants to adapt their shapes and sizes to their ever-changing environments. Sejnowski has helped pioneer the study of neural networks and computational neurobiology. His research aims to discover the principles linking brain mechanisms and human behavior.

Salk and Indivumed partner to advance global cancer research

Clockwise from top left: Salk’s Chief Science Officer Martin Hetzer, Cancer Center Director Reuben Shaw, Indivumed’s Founder and CEO Hartmut Juhl and Managing Director Andrew Deubler.

The Salk Institute is partnering with cancer research company Indivumed to secure, preserve and analyze human cancer tissue and annotated clinical data from consenting patients around the world. This collaboration will leverage the most cutting-edge basic and translational research tools to study gene expression, metabolites and many other aspects of tumor biology. Indivumed will provide dedicated resources to help researchers in the Salk Institute Cancer Center retrieve cancer specimens for intense study. Salk and Indivumed will also develop a portfolio of collaborative research projects, developing a global cancer database that includes comprehensive genomic and phenotypic information. Ultimately, this partnership will drive translational research to more rapidly bring new therapies to patients.

Service Awards Celebrate Salk Employees

The Institute honored nearly 60 employees for their dedication and years of service at the annual service awards presentation on February 14. Certificates were presented in five-year increments for service ranging from 10 years to 35 years.

Chief Science Officer Martin Hetzer adds two key staff positions

Kurt Marek, PhD, named new director of research development

Expanding the resources available to its faculty through the Office of the Chief Science Officer, Salk announced that Kurt Marek, PhD, has joined as director of research development. In this role, Marek will work closely with the Institute’s faculty and leadership to support the advancement of institutional research by enhancing its ability to secure major grants.

Marek has a wealth of training and experience in this area, having most recently served as a deputy director of the Office of Translational Alliances and Coordination for the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), where he was instrumental in developing and managing grant programs to support translational research. He also oversaw the NHLBI’s support of small businesses performing research and development on innovative biomedical products.

Marek earned undergraduate degrees in biology and humanities from UC San Diego and received his PhD in neuroscience from the University of California San Francisco where he was a Howard Hughes predoctoral fellow. He later studied spinal cord development as a Damon Runyon Cancer Research Fellow at UC San Diego, using genomics to identify new roles for electrical activity in the nervous system and to characterize the underlying molecular mechanisms. He joined NHLBI as an AAAS Science and Technology Policy fellow.


Tricia Wright, PhD, named first postdoctoral scholar advisor

Elevating and expanding its postdoctoral program, Salk announced that Tricia Wright, PhD, has joined the Institute as its first postdoctoral scholar advisor, a newly created position responsible for overseeing the new, dedicated Postdoctoral Office.

With extensive experience in this area, Wright most recently served as the director of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs for the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis, where she was responsible for fostering the professional development of approximately 200 postdoctoral trainees through programs, advocacy and resource development. At Salk, she will lead the way in ensuring the Institute’s program fulfills its purpose of providing resources and support in myriad areas, including assisting postdocs in obtaining funding, aiding and improving existing career development programs, and identifying strategies and tools to enhance the postdoctoral experience.

Wright earned a BS in biotechnology from Rutgers University and a PhD in genetics and molecular biology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and was a postdoctoral associate at Duke University.


Salk Magazine Wins “ADDY” and folio awards

Inside Salk, the Institute’s thrice-yearly magazine, took first place for overall design, feature design and electronic newsletter in Folio’s annual Eddie and Ozzie Awards for media and marketing. The publication also garnered nine honorable mentions, including for full issue, cover design and magazine website:

In addition, the magazine has been awarded two silvers and a bronze for publication design by the American Advertising Federation. The American Advertising Awards, informally known as the “ADDYs,” are the advertising industry’s largest and most representative competition, which recognizes and rewards the creative spirit of excellence in the art of advertising.

Sign up for our monthly newsletter.

Latest discoveries, events & more.