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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.
The NAS Award in Molecular Biology was first awarded in 1962 to Marshall Nirenberg for his studies of the molecular mechanisms for the biosynthesis of protein. In 1959 Nirenberg began to study the steps that relate DNA, RNA and protein. These investigations led to the demonstration with H. Matthaei that messenger RNA is required for protein synthesis and that synthetic messenger RNA preparations can be used to decipher various aspects of the genetic code (from Nirenberg’s Nobel biography). Nirenberg went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Robert W. Holley, H. Gobind Khorana in 1968 for "for their interpretation of the genetic code and its function in protein synthesis." Over the past 50 years the NAS Award in Molecular Biology has continued to recognize many outstanding young biologists and has been a been a precursor to numerous National Medals of Science and Lasker Awards, and fourteen Nobel Prizes (Nirenberg 1968; Holley 1968; Temin 1975; Baltimore 1975; Nathans 1978; Gilbert 1980; Cech 1989; Sharp 1993; Blobel 1999; Horvitz 2002; Fire 2006; Mello 2006; Blackburn 2009; Szostak 2009).
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.
Light—or optical—microscopy has been around since the 17th century. This type of microscope uses visible light and lenses to magnify an object. In 1873, German physicist Ernst Abbe established that the resolution of a light microscope is limited by the wavelength of the light used to illuminate the object and the aperture (opening) that lets the light in. This “diffraction limit” means that the structures of objects smaller than a few hundred nanometers, such as those of many molecular assemblies inside cells, can’t be resolved with this type of microscope. With her super-resolution microscopy method Stochastic Optical Reconstruction Microscopy (STORM), Zhuang was able to overcome the diffraction limit with the use of fluorescent probes. In conventional light microscopy, the probes are all switched on at the same time, making the determination of individual probes’ locations difficult because the images of the probes overlap. STORM, though, took inspiration from another of Zhuang’s discoveries: photoswitchable fluorescent dyes that can be turned on or off with light. At any given time during STORM imaging, only a subset of the photo-switchable probes are switched on so that the images from the probes will not overlap, allowing their positions to be determined precisely from their images. 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 to one-to-two orders of magnitude beyond the diffraction limit. And with this microscope 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.
Xiaowei Zhuang (2015)
For the development of a high-resolution microscopy method (STORM) that allows molecular-scale resolution, by bypassing the ‘diffraction limit’ that has long shackled light microscopy. In addition, she developed the photo-switchable fluorescent dyes that have made this method a powerful and critical tool in many areas of biological research and neuroscience.
David M. Sabatini (2014)
For his discovery of components and regulators of the mTOR kinase pathway and his elucidation of the important roles of this signaling pathway in nutrient sensing, cell physiology, and cancer.
Sue Biggins (2013)
For the isolation and in vitro characterization of a functional kinetochore complex, and for the use of that system to explore kinetochore function.
Zhijian (James) Chen (2012)
For his creative use of elegant biochemistry both in elucidating an unsuspected role for polyubiquitin in a kinase-signaling cascade important for cancer and immunity and in discovering a novel link between innate immunity and a mitochondrial membrane protein that forms prion-like polymers to trigger antiviral responses.
James M. Berger (2011)
For elucidating the structures of topoisomerases and helicases and providing insights into the biochemical mechanisms that mediate the replication and transcription of DNA.
Jeannie T. Lee (2010)
By using X-chromosome inactivation as a model system, Lee has made unique contributions to our understanding of epigenetic regulation on a global scale, including the role of long, non-coding RNAs, interchromosomal interactions, and nuclear compartmentalization.
Stephen P. Bell (2009)
For groundbreaking studies illuminating the mechanisms of DNA replication in eukaryotic cells.
Angelika Amon (2008)
For groundbreaking studies that have provided insight into the mechanism of the central process of chromosome segregation and the regulation of segregation.
Gregory J. Hannon (2007)
For elucidation of the enzymatic engine for RNA interference.
Ronald R. Breaker and Tina M. Henkin (2006)
For establishing a new mode of regulation of gene expression in which metabolites regulate the activity of their cognate pathways by directly binding to mRNA.
David Bartel (2005)
For his discoveries on the repertoire of catalytic RNA and the analysis of micro RNA genes and their targets.
Xiaodong Wang (2004)
For his biochemical studies of apoptosis which have resolved a molecular pathway leading in and out of the mitochondrion.
Stephen J. Elledge (2002)
For his innovative contributions at the forefront of the field of cell cycle checkpoints and his elucidation of pathways and mechanisms involved in DNA damage responses.
Erin K. O'Shea (2001)
For contributions to our understanding of signal transduction, regulation of protein movement into and out of the nucleus, and how phosphorylation controls protein activity.
Patrick O. Brown (2000)
For his intellectual leadership in functional genomics, most notably the development of a reliable and accessible DNA microarray system to measure genome-wide gene expression.
Clifford J. Tabin (1999)
For his contributions in analyzing genes that establish asymmetric body patterns and control limb development in vertebrates.
Philip Beachy (1998)
For his studies of a developmental morphogen, its processing and structure, and its covalent attachment to cholesterol.
Richard H. Scheller and Thomas C. Südhof (1997)
For their performance of elegant experiments to resolve the molecular components responsible for controlling neurotransmitter vesicle release and chemical communication within the nervous system.
Michael S. Levine (1996)
For his insightful contributions to our understanding of gene regulation networks and molecular mechanisms governing the development of organisms with a segmented body plan.
Daniel E. Gottschling (1995)
For his elucidation, by experiments elegant in their simplicity, of the relationship between the ends of yeast chromosomes and transcriptional silencing.
Gerald F. Joyce and Jack W. Szostak (1994)
For independently developing in vitro evolution of RNA catalysts. Their work produced RNA enzymes with novel specificities, while illuminating our view of natural selection.
Peter S. Kim (1993)
For his pathfinding research in structural biology, which has elucidated both the pathway of protein folding and mechanisms of macromolecular recognition.
Bruce S. Baker and Thomas W. Cline (1992)
For their creative use of genetics and molecular biology to define how sex is determined in Drosophila. Their experiments have shown how the ratio of sex chromosomes to autosomes can initiate a novel regulatory pathway involving RNA processing.
Steven L. McKnight and Robert Tjian (1991)
For advancing our understanding of transcriptional regulation by devising novel strategies and applying elegant biochemistry to reveal fundamental mechanisms underlying gene expression and development.
Elizabeth H. Blackburn (1990)
For her discovery of the nature of DNA at the ends of eukaryotic chromosomes and the enzyme that is necessary to complete chromosomal replication.
Kiyoshi Mizuuchi (1989)
For bringing about remarkable advances in our understanding of transposition and other forms of genetic recombination.
H. Robert Horvitz (1988)
For significant contributions to the genetic analysis of the development of cell lineages in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans.
Thomas R. Cech (1987)
For the astonishing discovery of RNA-catalyzed self-splicing of introns and the analysis of the chemistry of RNA-catalyzed reactions.
Robert G. Roeder (1986)
For his pioneering studies of eukaryotic RNA polymerases and the factors that regulate their activity.
Gerald M. Rubin and Allan C. Spradling (1985)
For adding a new dimension to eukaryotic genetics and developmental biology by developing a method to introduce and stably integrate cloned genes into the germ cells of living Drosophila.
Geoffrey M. Cooper and Robert A. Weinberg (1984)
For the identification and characterization of cellular oncogenes of human and animal tumors, thereby providing seminal insights into the mechanisms of carcinogenesis.
James C. Wang (1983)
For his ingenious studies of the topological properties of the DNA double helix and his discovery of the important class of enzymes know as DNA topoisomerases.
Joan A. Steitz (1982)
For contributing to our understanding of how RNA molecules are recognized by enzymes and discovering the roles played by small ribonucleoprotein molecules in RNA processing.
Ronald W. Davis and Gerald R. Fink (1981)
For their outstanding contributions to the molecular biology of the simple eukaryote Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Both have opened vistas of genetic analysis by the development of new methods, in particular, the development and utilization of molecular cloning in yeast.
Phillip A. Sharp (1980)
For his pioneering and continuing contributions to our understanding of messenger RNA biogenesis in mammalian cells.
Mark Ptashne (1979)
For his outstanding contributions to our understanding of gene regulation through the studies of the virus Lambda.
Günter Blobel (1978)
For elucidating mechanisms of passage of secreted proteins into and across membranes.
Aaron J. Shatkin (1977)
For his contributions to the understanding of eukaryotic, viral, and cellular messenger RNAs.
Daniel Nathans (1976)
For his innovative use of molecular and cell biological tools to analyze the genome of an oncogenic virus.
Bruce Alberts (1975)
For the isolation of proteins required for DNA replication and genetic recombination and the elucidation of how they interact with DNA.
David Baltimore (1974)
For his distinguished leadership in virus research, and for his discoveries on the reproduction and enzymology of RNA viruses that has greatly advanced the science of molecular biology.
Donald D. Brown (1973)
For his studies of the structure, regulation, and evolution of genes in animals, particularly the genes specifying ribosomal RNA in Xenopus and silk fibroin in Bombix.
Howard M. Temin (1972)
For his work leading to the discovery of reverse transcription.
Masayasu Nomura (1971)
For his studies on the structure and function of ribosomes and their molecular components.
A. Dale Kaiser (1970)
For his discovery that pure phage lambda DNA can infect susceptible bacterial cells and produce progeny, and for the effect of this discovery on the whole field of bacterial virus genetics.
William B. Wood, III (1969)
For his genetic dissection of the mechanism of assembly of the bacterial virus particle and reconstruction of the virus in vitro.
Walter Gilbert (1968)
For his signal contribution to the understanding of the regulatory mechanisms operative in genetic control of protein synthesis.
Robert W. Holley (1967)
For his elucidation of the full sequence of nucleotides in the molecule of a soluble RNA.
Norton D. Zinder (1966)
For his discovery of RNA bacteriophages, a new class of bacteria-attacking viruses, which have provided researchers with a highly valuable and convenient method of studying fundamental processes in all living cells.
Robert Stuart Edgar (1965)
For his development and application of the method of "conditional lethal mutants" for the analysis of the genetic control of morpho-genesis at the molecular level.
Charles Yanofsky (1964)
For his achievements in demonstrating how changes in the gene produce changes in the way protein is made in the body.
M. S. Meselson (1963)
For his leading role in developing and applying methods to measure the transmission of genetic information in the cell.
Marshall Nirenberg (1962)
For his studies of the molecular mechanisms for the biosynthesis of protein.