News from the National Academy of Sciences

Jan. 27, 2015


Academy Honors Four for Major Contributions in Biological and Biomedical Sciences

WASHINGTON — The National Academy of Sciences will honor four individuals with awards in recognition of their extraordinary scientific achievements in a variety of fields in the biological and biomedical sciences.

Hopi Hoekstra, investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Alexander Agassiz Professor of Biology at Harvard University, is the recipient of the 2015 Richard Lounsbery Award.

Hoekstra has worked to better understand the genetic changes that underlie evolutionary adaptations by reconstructing their evolutionary history and understanding their molecular mechanisms. In one key study, she uncovered the sequence of molecular events that led deer mice in one region to develop a blonder coat color. Hoekstra identified multiple camouflaging mutations in a single pigment gene, estimated when they occurred, and established that the mutations increased the chance of survival for mice living in the light-colored region, resulting in today’s blonder population. More recently, Hoekstra has applied innovative methods to understand the genetics that affect natural behaviors. In one study, she focused on two species of burrowing mice. Hoekstra’s team bred mice, made polyurethane casts of their burrows, and sequenced their DNA to find the genetic regions responsible for tunnel length and number of entries, revealing for the first time the genetic basis that lay beneath a complex behavior in natural populations of mammals.

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 Richard Lounsbery Award was established by Vera Lounsbery in honor of her husband, Richard Lounsbery, and is supported by the Richard Lounsbery Foundation.

Takao Kondo, Designated Professor and professor emeritus in the Graduate School of Science at Nagoya University, is recipient of the 2015 Gilbert Morgan Smith Medal.

Kondo and his colleagues created a way to study the cyanobacterium circadian clock by genetically engineering Synechococcus elongatus to glow through bioluminescence. The glow, they found, oscillated robustly in the circadian period (about 24 hours) even under constant conditions. Kondo then developed a computer-based system that allowed him to monitor the rhythms of thousands of those glowing cyanobacteria, which helped him find three genes — kaiA, kaiB and kaiC — that control this circadian system. Kondo then demonstrated how this simple timepiece works by mixing the three Kai proteins and ATP in a test tube to reconstitute the circadian clock. In later studies, Kondo and colleagues showed that these proteins can keep time by using a tiny amount of ATP. This body of knowledge has led to a transformation in how scientists think about the biological clock as well as the ecology of these organisms.

The award, established through the Helen P. Smith Fund, consists of a $50,000 prize in recognition of excellence in published research on marine or freshwater algae.

Xiaowei Zhuang, investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and David B. Arnold Jr. Professor of Science in the departments of chemistry and chemical biology and physics at Harvard University, is the recipient of the 2015 NAS Award in Molecular Biology.

Zhuang developed a super-resolution microscopy method called Stochastic Optical Reconstruction Microscopy (STORM), which overcomes the “diffraction limit” of light microscopy with the use of fluorescent probes. STORM took inspiration from another of Zhuang’s discoveries: photo-switchable fluorescent dyes that can be turned on or off with light. At any given time during STORM imaging, only a subset of the probes are switched on so that the probes’ images will not overlap, allowing their positions to be determined precisely. Combining those positions produces a higher-resolution image than is available with conventional fluorescence microscopy. With Zhuang’s innovations in optical design and fluorescent dyes, she has pushed STORM’s resolution one-to-two orders of magnitude beyond the diffraction limit. And with this technology, Zhuang and colleagues have been able to make many important discoveries, for instance, uncovering the periodic membrane skeleton structure in the axons of neurons and elucidating the molecular structure of synapses in the brain.

The NAS Award in Molecular Biology is supported by Pfizer Inc. and recognizes a recent notable discovery by a young scientist. The award is presented with a medal and a $25,000 prize.

Susan Gottesman, NIH Distinguished Investigator and co-chief, laboratory of molecular biology at the National Cancer Institute, is the 2015 Selman A. Waksman Award in Microbiology.

Gottesman’s work has focused on two mechanisms of post-transcriptional regulation in bacterial cells — controlled proteolysis and small RNAs. She uncovered the critical role that controlled proteolysis plays in bacterial cells, linking the mechanism for breaking down proteins to protein folding and misfolding as well as the cell’s stress response. She and her collaborators also identified a family of energy-dependent proteases (enzymes that perform proteolysis) that act as the bacterial equivalent of the eukaryotic proteasome. Gottesman’s lab then expanded its focus to the role that small RNAs play in regulation in E. coli and other bacteria. Small RNAs do not contain coding for proteins; instead, they interact with messenger RNAs (mRNAs) or proteins to control gene expression in a cell. Gottesman and her colleagues uncovered a collection of small RNAs and established their unique role in bacterial cell regulation, which has had a significant impact in the understanding of regulatory networks within these organisms.

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 26, during the National Academy of Sciences' 152nd 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, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council — 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

Powered by Blackbaud
nonprofit software