Society for Neuroscience Member Awarded Nobel Prize
For immediate release.
SOCIETY FOR NEUROSCIENCE MEMBER AWARDED NOBEL PRIZE
Washington, DC — H. Robert Horvitz, PhD, David H. Koch Professor of Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a member of the Society for Neuroscience, is one of three scientists awarded this year's Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Horvitz shares the award with Sydney Brenner, of the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in La Jolla, Calif., and founder of the Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley, Calif., and Sir John E. Sulston, former director of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Centre at England's Cambridge University. The three scientists are recognized for their discoveries concerning genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death.
Programmed cell death, or apoptosis, is an essential process in biological development and is necessary for removing redundant or damaged cells.
Misregulation of apoptosis may contribute to cancer and autoimmune and neurodegenerative diseases. Apoptosis is orchestrated and tightly regulated by interconnected intracellular pathways involving proteins that act as death activators or as inhibitors.
Horvitz, who also is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, is credited with identifying many of the components of the biochemical cascade that mediate apoptosis in the nematode worm, Caenorhabditis elegans. Horvitz and his colleagues showed that two genes, ced-3 and ced-4 were required for cell death to occur in the worm, while another gene, ced-9, prevents it.
This "cell suicide" response can be triggered by normal developmental signals, disease-related deterioration or cell damage resulting from toxic exposure, low oxygen or traumatic injury. Once the pathway is activated, the cell's DNA is minced into fragments and the cell awaits engulfment and removal by macrophages, the immune system's "clean-up" crew.
Horvitz will present the Grass lecture at the 32nd Annual Meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Orlando, Fla.
His current research focuses on analyzing how the nervous system controls behavior and how genes specify the functioning of a neuromuscular system.
Brenner showed that the tiny transparent worm C. elegans was useful for studying how cells specialize and organs develop. He also demonstrated that a chemical could produce specific genetic mutations in the worm, allowing different mutations to be linked to specific effects on organ development. Among his notable advances was the proposal - with Salk Institute Distinguished Professor Francis Crick - that a single amino acid is coded by three nucleotides of RNA.
Sulston, who also studied C. elegans, discovered that specific cells in the cell lineage always die through programmed cell death and that this could be monitored in the living organism. He described the visible steps in the cellular death process and demonstrated the first mutations of genes participating in programmed cell death. Sulston also has made major contributions to the sequencing of human and other genomes.