It’s common knowledge that light is essential for plants to perform photosynthesis—converting light energy into chemical energy by transforming carbon dioxide and water into sugars for fuel. Plants maximize the process by bending toward the light in a process called phototropism, which is particularly important for germinated seedlings to maximize light capture for growth. Winslow Briggs has been a worldwide leader in unraveling the molecular mechanisms behind this essential plant process.
Over a decade ago Briggs and colleagues discovered and first characterized the photoreceptor family that mediates this directional response and named the two members phototropin 1 and phototropin 2. They also identified the light-absorbing chemical called flavin mononucleotide (FMN) and two very similar proteins that bind the FMN dubbed LOV domains, which are similar to domains in a wide range of otherwise entirely different signaling proteins responding to Light, Oxygen, or Voltage.
Since then, his laboratory has done a great deal of biochemical and biophysical work characterizing the light reaction. From this work and that of others, a great deal is now known about how light affects plants. For example, it turns out that the phototropins mediate several other responses—leaf expansion, leaf orientation to light, chloroplast movement, the opening of stomata—small pores that regulate gas exchange-- among other features. All of these responses relate to maximizing photosynthetic potential.
Briggs received his B.S., M.A., and Ph.D. from Harvard University. He taught at both Stanford University and Harvard before coming to Carnegie in 1973 as director of the department. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences among many other professional organizations and he has been awarded countless prizes and other recognitions for his work over the decades.