Washington, D.C. – Christopher Somerville, Director of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Plant Biology, has been awarded the 2006 Balzan Prize in Plant Molecular Genetics, which he will share with his longtime collaborator, Elliot Meyerowitz of the California Institute of Technology. The International Balzan Foundation announced the winners on September 4, 2006, in Milan, Italy.

The prize committee recognized Somerville and Meyerowitz “for their joint efforts in establishing Arabidopsis as a model organism for plant molecular genetics.” The citation also praised their work as having “far reaching implications for plant science at both the fundamental level and in potential applications.”

Somerville and Meyerowitz were among the first to advocate the use of Arabidopsis thaliana, a relative of the mustard plant, as a model organism to study the genetics and physiology of plants. Somerville is currently focused on understanding how plant cells use cellulose, the most abundant plant-made molecule on the planet, to construct cell walls. Since the production of cellulose is directly related to biomass, this work has significant implications in the effort to engineer plants as fuel sources.

“The development of liquid fuels from biomass to displace our reliance on petroleum is of enormous importance in responding to climate change,” said Carnegie President Richard A. Meserve. “The prize serves to recognize not only the advances in fundamental knowledge that have come from the study of Arabidopsis, but also the importance of that knowledge in responding to a pressing global challenge.”

The Balzan prize is awarded to scientists, artists, and institutions for outstanding achievements in humanities, social sciences, physics, mathematics, natural sciences, and medicine. The prize committee, comprising 20 members from some of Europe’s most prestigious cultural institutions, rotates which fields of study are eligible for the awards from year to year. Besides Plant Molecular Genetics, the other science field to receive an award this year is Observational Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Each Balzan prize is worth 1 million Swiss Francs (about $810,000), half of which must be devoted to projects involving young researchers. The awards will be presented on November 24, 2006 by Giorgio Napolitano, President of the Italian Republic, in the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei in the Palazzo Corsini in Rome.

The International Balzan Foundation was established in 1956 by Angela Lina Balzan in memory of her father, Eugenio, a co-publisher of the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. The foundation promotes excellence in science, culture, and promoting peace. More than one hundred recipients have received prizes since 1961. See http://www.balzan.it/ for more information.

The Carnegie Institution of Washington (http://www.carnegieinstitution.org/) has been a pioneering force in basic scientific research since 1902. It is a private, nonprofit organization with six research departments throughout the U.S. Carnegie scientists are leaders in plant biology, developmental biology, astronomy, materials science, global ecology, and Earth and planetary science.

News Topic: 
Plant Genetics