2024 Wittgenstein Award for Jirí Friml

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Cell biologist at ISTA receives Austria’s most highly endowed science prize

FWF Wittgenstein Awardee Jirí Friml with the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. ©
FWF Wittgenstein Awardee Jirí Friml with the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. © FWF/Luiza Puiu

Austria’s most important science prize has once again been awarded to a researcher at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (ISTA): on the recommendation of an international jury of experts, the Austrian Science Fund FWF has awarded the FWF Wittgenstein Prize to cell biologist Jirí Friml. Friml, who has been a professor at ISTA since 2012, is the fifth person at the Institute to receive this award. The award comes with a prize money of 1.7 million euros for further basic research.

Minister of Education, Science and Research Martin Polaschek and FWF President Christof Gattringer presented the ¤1.7 million FWF Wittgenstein Award to Jirí Friml today. Friml will use the funds to further advance his world-class research. The Czech scientist has been very successfully researching the universal significance of the plant hormone auxin for years. It is central to how plants adapt to their environment.

"This award is a great honor for me and my team," said Jirí Friml in an initial reaction. "It motivates us to continue with our work and at the same time gives us the opportunity to try out something radically new. Both are crucial for successful research. The FWF Wittgenstein Award gives me and my group at ISTA the opportunity to continue researching very fundamental questions about how plants regulate their growth. We are focusing on new approaches combining methods from cell and developmental biology, genetics, biochemistry, and bioinformatics."

5 Awardees at ISTA

"Jirí Friml is always breaking new ground with his research. He and his group at ISTA are researching mechanisms of how plants adapt to their environment. In his pioneering work, he discovered the universal significance of the hormone auxin in plants," underlines Martin Hetzer, President of the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (ISTA). "With Jirí Friml, we now have five FWF Wittgenstein Award winners at ISTA. This award is a further sign for us that we are on the right path with our focus on curiosity-driven basic research."

The previous winners at ISTA are computer scientist and ISTA founding president Thomas Henzinger (2012), neuroscientist Peter Jonas (2016), mathematician Herbert Edelsbrunner (2018), and most recently computer scientist Monika Henzinger (2021), who focuses on efficient and anonymizing algorithms.

Pioneers in Basic Research

Martin Polaschek, Austrian Federal Minister for Education, Science and Research, stated during the ceremony: "Through his pioneering research in the field of cell biology, Jirí Friml has contributed significantly to progress in his discipline and to a better understanding of the mechanisms behind plant growth. I would like to congratulate you on your well-deserved selection for the FWF Wittgenstein Award. Every year, this highly endowed research award puts outstanding Austrian researchers in the spotlight and honors their excellent work in front of a broad public. It also provides award winners with maximum flexibility and allows them to advance their research. The award helps us create the ideal framework conditions for further groundbreaking findings in basic research."

FWF President Christof Gattringer about this year’s award winner: "With Jirí Friml, the international jury is honoring a pioneer in basic research who is investigating previously undiscovered mechanisms of how plants control their growth. His work is extraordinarily groundbreaking and gives us a profound insight into the evolutionary development of the plant world. The award marks a further milestone in a remarkable scientific career, which also promises to produce exciting new findings in the future. I would also like to congratulate all’eight researchers selected to receive the FWF START Awards. Over the next few years, they will be exploring completely new research questions in a wide variety of fields."

Jirí Friml: Discovering how plants control their growth

Jirí Friml is head of the research group on " Developmental and Cell Biology of Plants " at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (ISTA). The biochemist, cell biologist, and geneticist studied in Brno, Cologne, and Tübingen. He held professorships at the University of Göttingen, the Vlaams Instituut voor Biotechnologie, and Ghent University before joining ISTA in 2012. His numerous scientific awards include two ERC Advanced Grants, which he received in 2017 and 2024. In 2015, he received the Erwin Schrödinger Award of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Friml is currently leading the FWF project "Guanylate Cyclase Activity of TIR1/AFBs Auxin Receptors."

The research group led by Jirí Friml focuses on the hormone auxin in plants. Plants’ own compounds regulate their growth and environmental adaptation by reacting to external stimuli such as light or temperature. Friml and his team combine methods from cell and developmental biology, genetics, biochemistry, and bioinformatics to explain auxin transport, signaling, cell polarity, and other mechanisms plants use to adapt to their surroundings.

Plants are rooted in place and do not have a nervous system to process information from the environment. As a result, they have developed their own environmental adaptation and survival strategies. Jirí Friml and his team have discovered the plant hormone auxin is the most important and universal signal for information transfer between plant cells. The auxin signaling pathway integrates both endogenous signals and signals from the environment and translates them into a developmental change depending on the cell type. The auxin signal can therefore trigger growth of the roots downwards and the shoots upwards or towards the light, as well as the development of new organs such as flowers and leaves, or can even stop growth altogether. These findings could be applied to agriculture in the future and make it more efficient and sustainable. For example, the targeted control of the auxin signaling pathway could be used to ensure that crops in the field use their energy for their own growth rather than for mutual competition.

Jury statement: Groundbreaking contributions to cell biology

The Wittgenstein jury consists of 13 international top researchers, including two Nobel Prize laureates, Bruce Beutler (physiology/medicine) and Stefan Hell (chemistry). Chair of the jury is Janet Wolff, University of Manchester. The jury explains their choice as follows:

"Jirí Friml is a pioneer in the field of plant biology, specifically concerning how the phytohormone auxin functions as the major coordinative signal regulating plant growth and development. His work has defined current concepts of how auxin controls the directional growth of plant organs such as roots. His work shapes the current state of research and offers new perspectives in plant biology. By awarding the FWF Wittgenstein Award to Jirí Friml, Austria is honoring one of the most creative researchers in a field in which Austria plays a leading role. He is a driving force in global plant biology."

FWF Wittgenstein Award: Austria’s most highly endowed science prize

The FWF Wittgenstein Award is granted to outstanding researchers from all disciplines. The award, endowed with ¤1.7 million, supports the researchers’ work and guarantees them independence and flexibility in implementing their projects, giving them the opportunity to advance their research activities at the highest international level.

In addition to the Wittgenstein Prize, the FWF also awarded eight FWF START Prizes at a festive ceremony.