UChicago receives $10 million for new Pritzker Plant Biology Center

A gift of $10 million to the University of Chicago from the Margot and Tom Pritzker Foundation will establish the Pritzker Plant Biology Center on the University’s Hyde Park campus.

The research hub, a first of its kind for the University, will focus its efforts on investigating new ways to promote plant growth and increase crop yield. This research has the potential to address and solve one of the most significant global challenges today: climate change’s pressure on food production.

“The collaborative nature of our work will be a great asset in advancing new breakthroughs in increasing crop yield and promoting plant growth,” said Chuan He, the John T. Wilson Distinguished Service Professor in Chemistry, Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and the first director of the Center. “I greatly look forward to assembling and managing an elite team of researchers who will work together to make the Center a world leader in mechanistic plant biology research.”

More than a decade ago, He pioneered a new field of research by discovering a previously unknown mechanism for gene expression regulation. He discovered that in most animals and plants, RNA does not just blindly carry out DNA’s blueprint but instead actively regulates which part of the blueprint is expressed. Cells place and remove chemical markers on RNA that change the outcome of gene expression. Since that discovery, He and his team have been trying to understand the effect of this process on plants, animals and human diseases.

Recently, He and collaborators added a gene encoding for a protein called FTO–a gene that erases chemical marks on RNA–to rice plants. The experiment increased the plants’ mass by 50% and produced 50% more rice. The plants also grew longer root systems, which help plants be more drought tolerant.

The team repeated the experiment with potato plants. Though the plants are part of a completely different family, the results were the same, indicating that there’s a degree of universality to the process. These findings have important implications for food supply issues, possibly allowing farmers to produce more food for an increasing population, despite a warming climate.

The Pritzker Plant Biology Center will allow He and his team to continue with this research and explore new avenues of inquiry. The Center will prioritize research on plant biology and agriculture, but their findings may have impact beyond plant biology and food security. Production of stock materials, like wood, rubber, and grass for cattle, may also benefit from this work.

“Our primary goal is to understand underlying pathways and mechanisms that regulate plant growth,” He said. “Technologies that allow dramatic yield increase of different crops will obviously have major social impacts on food security but also other materials we typically get from plants. Another important aspect of the Center is developing plant species more tolerant to drought and climate change.”

“Through the decades we come back to science as an opportunity to have a meaningful impact on society,” said Tom Pritzker. “We tend to look to support gifted leaders, and Chuan He clearly fits that description. Chuan explained the opportunity and the desire to move quickly. Margot and I developed conviction in Chuan and are pleased with the outcome.”

As part of the Physical Sciences Division, the Center will support an interdisciplinary team that includes plant biologists and plant RNA biologists, genomic scientists, bioinformaticians, biochemists and other staff. Experimental plants will be grown at the University of Chicago greenhouse on the roof of the Biological Services Learning Center.

“This new Center will dramatically bolster our efforts in investigating pathways promoting plant growth and crop yields to combat some of the most pressing problems we face on a global scale,” said Angela V. Olinto, dean of the Physical Sciences Division at UChicago. “The work of Professor Chuan He and his team is transformative at many levels, and I am grateful for the Margot and Tom Pritzker Foundation’s partnership in supporting their groundbreaking research.”