News from the National Academy of Sciences

Jan. 21, 2016


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

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

Richard Henderson, member of the scientific staff in the MRC (Medical Research Council) Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, U.K., will receive the 2016 Alexander Hollaender Award in Biophysics.

In 1975, Henderson and colleague Nigel Unwin determined the structure of bacteriorhodopsin — a light-driven proton pump found in the membrane of Archaea — using electron microscopy. This was revolutionary because the technique usually requires a stain that can obfuscate details, but Henderson and Unwin realized they could instead place the crystals on a thin carbon support and eliminate the stain. Starting in the 1990s, Henderson again revolutionized the field of structural biology when he turned his sights on another method for determining protein structure: cryoEM. In this technique, proteins are flash-frozen by plunging into liquid ethane then imaged with electron microscopy. Henderson and others made major improvements to the method — developing better sensors for electron microscopes, as well as better software for the system — that improved cryoEM to such an extent that it is now the preferred technique for determining protein structures.

The Alexander Hollaender Award in Biophysics is presented every three years and carries with it a $20,000 prize. The Award recognizes outstanding contributions made to the field of biophysics.

Huda Y. Zoghbi, Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, professor at the Baylor College of Medicine, and director of the Jan and Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital, will receive the 2016 Jessie Stevenson Kovalenko Medal.

Zoghbi has combined cell biology, mouse genetics, and human clinical genetics to reveal fundamental mechanisms underlying a wide range of diseases and disorders. She has shaped the study of neurodegenerative diseases in which the underlying problem is often a protein that accumulates and is toxic to cells; Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are the most famous members of this family of “proteinopathies.” She has provided compelling insights into the spinocerebellar ataxias, identifying a promising therapeutic target for spinocerebellar ataxia Type 1. And she has made major contributions to knowledge about Rett syndrome, a form of autism. In 1999, Zoghbi discovered that the syndrome is caused by mutations in the X-linked gene MECP2, which is involved in the epigenetic regulation of gene expression. This established Rett syndrome as an epigenetic disease and showed that autism can be a genetic disorder caused by largely sporadic mutations.

The Jessie Stevenson Kovalenko Medal is awarded every two years for outstanding research in the medical sciences. The medal carries with it a $25,000 prize and an additional $50,000 for research.

Michael Goddard, professorial fellow in animal genetics in the faculty of veterinary and agricultural science at the University of Melbourne, and Theodorus Meuwissen, professor in bioinformatics in the department of animal and aquacultural sciences at Norwegian University of Life Sciences, will jointly receive the 2016 John J. Carty Award for the Advancement of Science, presented this year in agricultural science.

The principles of genomic selection come from a landmark paper published in Genetics in 2001 by Goddard and Meuwissen, along with Ben Hayes of La Trobe University in Australia. The trio showed that it should be possible to identify high genetic value by using thousands of molecular genetic markers covering the entire genome. At the time, genomic technology was inadequate because there was no way to assay animals for thousands of markers at reasonable cost, but, with the development of “SNP chips”, it soon caught up. Genomic selection first became widely adopted in the dairy cattle industry where it was found to save much time and money over traditional breeding techniques. Genomic selection has now been applied to other animal species, such as pigs and poultry, as well as plants, such as cotton, rice, and wheat. And the concepts behind genomic selection have even proved useful in the field of human genetics and the search for predictors of disease.

The John J. Carty Award for the Advancement of Science is awarded every two years to recognize noteworthy and distinguished accomplishments in any field of science within the National Academy of Sciences’ charter. The award is presented with a medal and a $25,000 prize.

Dianne K. Newman, Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and professor of biology and geobiology at the California Institute of Technology, will receive the 2016 NAS Award in Molecular Biology.

Newman combined her expertise in microbial genetics and microbial biology with her knowledge of geology and mineralization processes in the development of a field of science called geomicrobiology. This area of science, as Newman has shown, is key to understanding the evolution of our planet; she has helped raise awareness that geomicrobiology is also directly relevant to significant global problems, such as climate change and the development of renewable energy. Newman provided a compelling clue that microbes are major players in geologic processes, discovering an important molecular mechanism underpinning how bacteria in iron-rich environments make extracellular iron available for use by other organisms. She also elucidated the genetic basis of bacterial respiration of arsenate and developed a method for quickly and accurately identifying these bacteria. The technique is currently used in surveying contaminated water in California, Chile, Brazil, and Southeast Asia. Newman’s work has revolutionized this area of science, and her techniques and methods are now widely used by other researchers in this field.

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.

Stephen R. Quake, Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and Lee Otterson Professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics at Stanford University, will received the 2016 Raymond and Beverly Sackler Prize in Convergence Research, presented to honor convergence research that benefits human health.

Quake has combined many disciplines — including bioengineering, biophysics, genetics, medicine, and molecular biology — in the creation of non-invasive diagnostic procedures that are advancing human biology and have yielded practical benefits in clinical medicine. He invented microfluidic large-scale integration by fabricating “lab-on-a-chip” devices that allow researchers to work with extremely tiny samples. Quake’s lab pioneered the development of an automatic microfluidic platform that allows the capture and lysis (opening) of individual cells so that their DNA and RNA can be analyzed, yielding DNA sequences and gene expression profiles for single cells. His lab also demonstrated the feasibility of single-molecule DNA sequencing, leading to the first clinical annotation of a whole human genome — Quake’s own. This type of personal genomics has already found clinical applications, including a non-invasive approach for the prenatal diagnosis of genetic diseases such as Down syndrome.

The Raymond and Beverly Sackler Prize in Convergence Research was established through a generous gift from Raymond and Beverly Sackler and their foundation to recognize significant advances in convergence research -- the integration of two or more of the following disciplines: mathematics, physics, chemistry, biomedicine, biology, astronomy, earth sciences, engineering, and computational science -- and achievements possible only through such integration. The prize is presented with an award totaling $350,000. Quake will receive two-thirds of the prize money; the remaining third will support his research at Stanford.

The winners will be honored in a ceremony on Sunday, May 1, during the National Academy of Sciences' 153rd 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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