On January 17, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced that the Crafoord Prize in Biosciences 2019 goes to Sallie (Penny) W. Chisholm of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology “for the discovery and pioneering studies of the most abundant photosynthesizing organism on Earth, Prochlorococcus.”
Chisholm, a principal investigator with the Simons Collaboration on Ocean Processes and Ecology (SCOPE), discovered the organism in samples recovered in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in the 1980s, and she and her colleagues published their discovery in 1988. She has devoted her research to developing Prochlorococcus as a model system for advancing the understanding of the ecology and evolution of marine microbes. Chisholm found that Prochlorococcus is the smallest (0.5 micron in diameter) and most abundant photosynthetic cell in the global oceans. About 100 million exist in a liter of ocean water, and the worldwide population is estimated at about 3 x 1027 individuals.
Along with other bacteria, viruses and protists, Prochlorococcus plays a critical role in microbial ecosystems in the oceans. One of the main goals of her SCOPE project, “Integrated Systems Biology of Prochlorococcus,” is “to improve our understanding of the flow of energy and carbon through these systems by studying the ecology of Prochlorococcus at all scales of organization — from the genome to the ecosystem.” Her April 2018 TED talk about the microbe has nearly 1.2 million views.
“Her science is so much more than the original discovery of Prochlorococus,” says University of Washington’s E. Virginia Armbrust, director of the SCOPE-Gradients project. “It’s knowing what questions to ask (and keep asking) after the discovery and then how to put all the pieces together. That’s the part that I continue to find so inspiring.”
The Crafoord Prize, which carries an award of 6 million Swedish krona (about $650,000), is administered by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Crafoord Foundation in Lund. The honored disciplines, chosen as a complement to those of the Nobel Prize, change every year. The prize ceremony will be held May 15 at Lund University.