News from the National Academy of Sciences

Jan. 23, 2017


Academy Honors Four for Major Contributions in Biological, Medical, and Agricultural Sciences

WASHINGTON — The National Academy of Sciences will honor four individuals with awards in recognition of their extraordinary scientific achievements in the biological, agricultural, and medical sciences.

Rodolphe Barrangou, the Todd R. Klaenhammer Distinguished Scholar in Probiotics Research and associate professor in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing, and Nutrition Sciences, North Carolina State University, will receive the 2017 NAS Award in Molecular Biology.

Beginning with their landmark paper in 2007, Barrangou and his collaborators’ discovery that bacteria have adaptive immune systems has catalyzed the manipulation of the CRISPR-Cas9 pathway for genome engineering.

The paper illustrated the discovery that bacteria capture and integrate new DNA sequences called “spacers” into a feature of their genome called clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR). The CRISPR, they discovered, work together with Cas (CRISPR-associated) genes to provide specific resistance and adaptive immunity against viruses. In subsequent studies, Barrangou and his fellow researchers characterized the genetic and molecular basis for processes that direct Cas9-mediated targeting and cleavage of viral and plasmid DNA by bacteria. The worldwide attention devoted to this discovery led to the expansion of investigations into CRISPR and associated Cas proteins, allowing researchers to address questions of bacterial survival, population diversity and evolutionary dynamics. Barrangou continues to lead the field of CRISPR research and the practical application of bacterial adaptive immunity in food fermentation and a way to eventually improve human health.

The NAS Award in Molecular Biology is supported by Pfizer Inc. and recognizes a recent notable discovery by a young scientist (defined as no older than 45) who is a citizen of the United States. The award is presented with a medal and a $25,000 prize.

Edward S. Buckler, research geneticist, U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service, and adjunct professor of plant breeding and genetics at the Institute for Genomic Diversity, Cornell University, will receive the 2017 NAS Prize in Food and Agriculture Sciences, the first time this prize is being awarded.

Buckler’s work focuses on nutrition and food security. His lab pioneered the use of genome-wide association studies in plants, providing critical insights into crop genetics, crop genomes and plant diversity. By examining the genetic causes of natural variation in different strains of maize and other plants, Buckler and his collaborators have been able to develop maize varieties with 15 times the level of vitamin A—providing a solution to a life-threatening deficiency in the developing world. He and his group have also addressed other critical agricultural issues necessary for world food security such as hybrid vigor, local adaptation, drought tolerance, and disease resistance.

Buckler’s techniques for the analysis of natural genomic diversity have become so widespread and affordable that they have been used on more than thousand different species and even affected the study of the human genome. He and his group have also developed open-source software and databases for the analysis of natural variation, which are used by thousands of research groups around the world.

The NAS Prize in Food and Agriculture Sciences recognizes research by a mid-career scientist at a U.S. institution who has made an extraordinary contribution to agriculture or to the understanding of the biology of a species fundamentally important to agriculture or food production. The prize is endowed through generous gifts from the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Pardis Christine Sabeti, professor at the Center for Systems Biology & Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, will receive the 2017 Richard Lounsbery Award.

A geneticist-virologist with a passion for global health, Sabeti’s groundbreaking contributions include the development of new methods to study evolutionary selection in humans and viruses; the creation of new collaborative models for combatting emerging diseases across disciplinary and national borders; and leadership of global efforts to increase data sharing in pandemics, including Ebola and Lassa fever.

Her early work created a number of statistical tests based on genetic diversity and haplotype structure, which can be used to scan the entire human genome for examples of beneficial adaptive variation. These led to the identification of hundreds of genetic loci with evidence of recent natural selection in populations on three continents, and uncovered adaptation for lactose tolerance, thermoregulation, and resistance to infectious diseases.

Sabeti’s work also targeted the genetics of malaria, examining the genomic variations in the malaria parasite around the world and identifying loci under natural selection and driving resistance to anti-malarial drugs.

Most recently, Sabeti and her colleagues have published landmark genomic studies of Ebola and Lassa virus. Her team’s breakthrough 2014 paper in Science confirmed that the Ebola virus had spread from Guinea to Sierra Leone, indicated that human-to-human transmission was sustaining the outbreak, and elucidated specific transmission events. Their work revealed where and how quickly mutations were occurring, information fundamental to designing effective diagnostics, vaccines and antibody-based therapies. The efforts continue alongside the African Center of Excellence of Genomics of Infectious Disease, an organization she and her partners launched in 2014 to enhance education and research capacity in Africa.

Sabeti was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator in 2015, serves on the faculty of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and is an Institute Member at the Broad Institute.

The Richard Lounsbery Award is a $50,000 prize given in alternate years to young French and American scientists to recognize extraordinary scientific achievement in biology and medicine. It is administered in alternate years by the National Academy of Sciences and the French Académie des Sciences. In addition to honoring scientific excellence, the award is intended to stimulate research and encourage reciprocal scientific exchanges between the United States and France. The award was established by Vera Lounsbery in honor of her husband, Richard Lounsbery, and is supported by the Richard Lounsbery Foundation.

Bernard Roizman, Joseph Regenstein Distinguished Service Professor of Virology at Viral Oncology Laboratories, The University of Chicago, will receive the 2017 Selman A. Waksman Award in Microbiology.

Over the past five decades, Roizman has made pivotal contributions to the scientific understanding of the mechanisms by which herpes viruses replicate and cause disease, and in the process his work has helped to improve human health. His research first identified viral herpes genes and proteins, as well as the structure of viral DNA, and defined the principles of herpes simplex virus gene regulation. He also constructed the first recombinant virus specifically targeted to malignant cells.

Using biochemistry, novel genetic strategies, and cell biology, Roizman’s ongoing research focuses on how the herpes simplex virus, which has fewer than 100 genes, is able to take over a much more complex human cell, which contains more than 20,000 genes. This led to the first engineered virus, which has been used to study and target lethal tumors in humans.

Roizman’s role as a mentor has extended his research beyond his lab, with dozens of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows energizing the field of virology.

Supported by the Waksman Foundation for Microbiology, the Selman A. Waksman Award is presented to recognize a major advance in the field of microbiology.

The winners will be honored in a ceremony on Sunday, April 30, during the National Academy of Sciences' 154th annual meeting.
The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit institution that was established under a congressional charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. It recognizes achievement in science by election to membership, and — with the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Medicine — provides science, engineering, and health policy advice to the federal government and other organizations.

Molly Galvin, Senior Media Relations Officer
Office of News and Public Information
202-334-2138; e-mail
Twitter: @theNASciences

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