Detlef Weigel, director of the Department of Molecular Biology at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, receives the Stephen Hales Prize, awarded by the American Society for Plant Biologists (ASPB). The award recognizes his foundational contributions to several areas of plant biology, most notably his pioneering work on genetic variation and how it allows plants to adapt to a changing environment. The award ceremony will take place online during the annual meeting of the ASPB on July 19-23.
Weigel, one of the world’s preeminent plant biologists, first made his mark studying the molecular and genetic basis of flowering in the small plant Arabidopsis thaliana (thale cress). The correct timing of flowering, which is dependent on both environmental and endogenous cues, is of utmost importance to both wild plants and crops, since it ensures their reproduction and long-term survival.
Discovery of the LEAFY gene
In the 1990s, Weigel and his team were able to transfer the LEAFY gene from Arabidopsis to aspen trees, thereby reducing the time to flowering in aspen from many years to a few months, firmly establishing Arabidopsis as a universal discovery platform for plant biotechnology. Subsequently, they identified the FT gene, today known as the central component of the mobile flowering signal. It moves from leaves to the tip of the plant where flowers are made–an elusive molecule that plant biologists had tried to isolate for over 50 years.
In quest of answers to climate change
The onset of flowering is greatly dependent on the environment, and it is a prime example for an adaptive trait. Inspired by his work on flowering, Weigel became interested more generally by questions of adaptation, the center of his work in the past two decades. As one example, he has used Arabidopsis to demonstrate how genetic knowledge can be used to accurately forecast the future distribution of a species under climate change scenarios.
The key to this work is provided by a large set of genetic resources that Weigel and his collaborators have generated in the context of the 1001 Genomes Project for populations of Arabidopsis thaliana and which they have been freely sharing with colleagues across the world.
A cosmopolitan with Europe at the heart’s core
“As a naturalized US citizen and somebody who came to plant biology only after his PhD, being recognized by the American Society of Plant Biologists is especially meaningful to me,” says Weigel, one of the most-cited authors among plant scientists.
Weigel, who describes himself as German by birth, American by choice, and European at heart, received his PhD from the University of Tübingen in 1986. He continued his research as a postdoc at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and then as a professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla. In 2002, he returned to Tübingen, where he heads the Department of Molecular Biology at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology. Weigel has been a long-term advocate of open access publishing, and he often engages in public debates on the merits of modern methods of plant breeding.
About the Stephen Hales Award
The award honors Stephen Hales for his pioneering work in plant biology published in his 1727 book Vegetable Staticks. Since its launch in 1927, it is awarded annually to an ASPB member who has served the science of plant biology in a noteworthy manner. The award ceremony will take place at the ASBP’s next annual meeting in July, where Weigel will address the society to speak about the latest findings of his laboratory on the nonrandomness of spontaneous mutations, a surprising discovery with far-reaching implications for understanding genetic diversity.
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