Portrait Jiří Friml
A pioneer in plant biology: Jiří Friml from ISTA is Austria's new FWF Wittgenstein Award winner. © FWF/Luiza Puiu

“This award is a great honor for me and my team. 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,” said Jiří Friml in an initial reaction. “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,” continues Friml.

“Through his pioneering research in the field of cell biology, Jiří 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,” said Martin Polaschek, Federal Minister for Education, Science and Research.

“With Jiří 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,” said FWF President Christof Gattringer about this year’s award winner. “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.”

“Jiří 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,” said Martin Hetzer, President of the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (ISTA). “With Jiří Friml, we now have five FWF Wittgenstein Award winners at ISTA. This award is a further sign for us that we’re on the right path with our focus on curiosity-driven basic research.”

Jiří Friml: Discovering how plants control their growth

Jiří Friml is head of the Developmental and Cell Biology of Plants research group 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 Jiří 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. Jiří 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

“Jiří 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 Jiří 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,” said the international FWF jury.

The START/Wittgenstein jury consists of 13 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. Click here for a list of members of the START/Wittgenstein Jury.

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.

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