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Caltech Researcher who Pioneered theField of Behavioral Genetics Named Recipient of America’s Top Prize in Medicine
   April 28, 2006

     

ALBANY, N.Y., April 28, 2006 – Seymour Benzer, Ph.D., a neuroscientist, molecular biologist and physicist who uncovered genetic links to behavior in fruit flies that today serve as the foundation for the study and treatment of human neurological diseases, has been named the recipient of the $500,000 Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, America’s top prize in medicine.

 

Benzer and his students demonstrated how mutations in single genes could have a radical effect on behavior in the fruit fly, Drosophila. The fly would later prove to be a model organism for the study of neurological disease, due to the remarkable degree of similarity between the fly and human genomes.

 

Benzer’s seminal discoveries, which ran counter to the prevailing theory in the 1960’s that environment was the primary factor in shaping human behavior, profoundly influenced a generation of scientists who, along with Benzer, identified the genetic basis for differences in learning and memory, sleep patterns, and even reproduction in fruit flies.  Heralded by the scientific community as the “father of neurogenetics,” Benzer’s pioneering work opened the field to exploration of models for specific neurodegenerative diseases of the human brain such as Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s chorea, Parkinson’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease).

 

Benzer is currently James Griffin Boswell Professor of Neuroscience, Emeritus (Active) at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. An octogenarian whose unconventional circadian rhythm has fueled all-night laboratory research sessions for more than half a century, Benzer is credited with founding the discipline of neurogenetics, defined broadly as the science of how genes control development and function of the nervous system and the brain, and influence behavior. Prior to pioneering this field, Benzer made his mark with monumental discoveries in molecular biology that bridged the gap between DNA and the fine structure of the gene, which helped to pave the way for the Human Genome Project, an effort to map and sequence every one of the three billion letters in the human genome.

 

In addition to honoring Benzer and his work, this year’s Prize ceremony paid tribute to Morris “Marty” Silverman, founder of the Albany Medical Center Prize, who passed away in January 2006 at the age of 93. Silverman founded the Albany Prize in November 2000 with a $50 million gift commitment to Albany Medical Center. A New York City businessman and philanthropist, born in Troy, N.Y. and educated in nearby Albany, Silverman succeeded in realizing his dream to have the Prize widely recognized as “America’s Nobel.”

 

“This year we honor two outstanding visionaries, Seymour Benzer and Marty Silverman, one a great scientist, the other a world-class philanthropist, each of whom has made an immortal contribution to mankind and to whom the world owes an infinite debt of gratitude,” said James J. Barba, Chairman of the Board, President and Chief Executive Officer of Albany Medical Center, who also chairs the national selection committee for the Albany Medical Center Prize. “Dr. Benzer’s pioneering research into what he coined the ‘genetic dissection of behavior’ has paved the way for scientists to uncover links between genes and human behavior which have resulted in our improved ability to treat diseases of the brain and central nervous system. As we celebrate a lifetime of achievement and accomplishment by Dr. Benzer, we also pay tribute to Marty Silverman whose goal in creating this Prize was to focus attention on Albany and Albany Medical Center as an international hub of science and research. Marty, as you watch over us today I assure you – mission accomplished!”

 

The Albany Medical Center Prize is the largest prize in medicine in the United States and second worldwide to the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. The annual Prize – announced each spring – has been created to encourage and recognize extraordinary and sustained contributions to improving health care and promoting biomedical research with translational benefits applied to improved patient care.

 

Benzer was selected for the Albany Medical Center Prize for his entire body of scientific work, which spans more than half a century and has incorporated the disciplines of solid state physics, molecular biology, and neurogenetics. In the 1950’s, using mutations in a virus that devours bacteria, Benzer made the seminal discovery that a single gene could be cut and dissected into many parts, which would help lay the groundwork for the explosion of genetic mapping and genetic engineering that now dominate biology.

 

That discovery would ultimately prove critical to Benzer’s later work in the field of neurogenetics, a discipline that he undertook following the birth to his late wife, Dotty, of their second daughter, Martha, who behaved so differently than their first daughter, Barbie. According to Jonathan Weiner, whose biography of Benzer entitled, “Time, Love, Memory,” won the National Book Critics Award for Nonfiction, Benzer asked the question, “Are my wife and I doing things that differently, or is it genetic?”

 

That question, according to Weiner, was the crux of an ongoing debate between behaviorists like John Watson who believed that dominant behavioral traits were molded by experience -- from environment, from nurture, from the outside -- and Benzer who was convinced that many behavioral differences stemmed largely from genetics. Thus began Benzer’s quest to isolate some of these genes and to figure out how they impacted neurons, the brain and changes in behavior – the components that made up the revolutionary new field of neurogenetics.

 

Benzer decided that, in order to differentiate between nature and nurture, one would need to keep the environment constant and alter the genes.  He adopted fruit flies – or Drosophila – as his model organism, due to the relative ease with which one can manipulate their genes and study generations of offspring within a short period of time. The choice of the fly turned out to be a rather serendipitous one. Later on, while collaborating with his second wife, Carol Miller, Chief of the Cajal Laboratory of Neuropathology at the University of Southern California, they made the remarkable discovery that the fly brain and the human brain had a tremendous amount of molecular machinery in common – so much so that, according to Weiner, Drosophilists began to think of fruit flies as “little people with wings.” Indeed, the subsequent sequencing of both the human and fly genomes has shown that a majority of Drosophila genes have human counterparts, thus underscoring the relevance of Benzer’s work to a host of illnesses and diseases affecting humans.

 

An example of one of Benzer’s early fundamental discoveries, with his student Ronald Konopka, involved the effect of genes on the sleep behavioral patterns, or circadian rhythm, of fruit flies. They exposed the flies to a mutagenic poison to generate random mutations in their genes. The goal was to determine whether any of the mutated flies showed a change in behavior relative to the time of day when they emerged from their sac. Normal flies emerge around dawn, every 24 hours, but they discovered a line of mutated flies that lacked the innate rhythm, emerging at random times throughout the day and night.  Another mutant ran on a shortened day, and a third had a long day. That showed clearly that the flies’ internal clock was genetically controlled, but mutations had thrown the clocks off.  Further research by the pair showed that these were three different mutations in the same gene, which they named “period.” 

 

Later, one of Benzer’s disciples named Jeff Hall, with his collaborator Michael Rosbash, cloned the “period” gene and injected it into a line of time-challenged flies. The result was that the flies’ circadian rhythm returned to normal -- proving that a single gene could help cure the defective behavior.  From the structure of the gene in the fly, other researchers were able to identify its counterparts in rodents and in humans, which has led to what has been called “a clockwork explosion” of research on dissecting the genetic and molecular mechanics of the rhythm generator.  It turns out, in fact, that differences between early people, the “larks” and “owls” (such as Benzer) can be traced to mutations in the human period gene.

 

Other discoveries fueled by Benzer and his students have focused on the excitable potassium channel, neural differentiation, neurodegeneration, various hereditary nervous disorders, developmental patterning in the retina, the molecular basis of reception of pain and molecular clues into the aging process.

 

In addition to the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine, Benzer has received 40 major awards, including the prestigious Lasker Award, and two Gairdner Awards – the first for his seminal contributions to the development of molecular biology and, recently, for his unparalleled contributions to the field of neurogenetics, as well as the National Medal of Science, and the inaugural Peter Gruber Award for Neuroscience.  Benzer is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society, as well as a Foreign Member of the Royal Society, the French Academie des Sciences, and the Indian Academy of Sciences.

 

Benzer’s nearly 130 scholarly papers span the three disciplines of his life’s work: physics, molecular biology and behavioral biology.  His arrival into the field of behavioral biology – or neurogenetics – was marked by the groundbreaking publication entitled, “Behavioral mutants of Drosophila isolated by countercurrent distribution.”  The original countercurrent apparatus used for those initial experiments with fruit flies is in the collection of the Science Museum in London. 

 

In addition to Weiner’s book about Benzer’s neurogenetics era, a second book, about Benzer’s early work in molecular genetics, written by the late Yale historian of science, Laurence Holmes, entitled “Reconceiving the Gene,” is scheduled to be published at the end of May this year.

 

Benzer was born in the Bronx on October 15, 1921, but moved at age 4 to the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, N.Y. He received his B.S. in Physics from Brooklyn College in 1942, and his master’s degree and Ph.D. in Physics from Purdue University in 1943 and 1947, respectively. From 1947 to 1965, he was on the faculty at Purdue University, where his molecular biology work was done.  His neurogenetics period began in 1965, on moving to Caltech, where he continues to lead a lively research group.

 

Previous winners of the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine include:

*  2005 recipient Dr. Robert S. Langer, a chemical engineer whose

    groundbreaking research with polymers - or plastics - revolutionized

    the field of drug delivery systems and has also helped spawn the field of

    tissue engineering;

*  2004 co-recipients Dr. Stanley N. Cohen and Herbert W. Boyer, Ph.D.,

    whose research discovering recombinant DNA – more commonly known

    as gene cloning – paved the way for the modern biotechnology industry;

*  2003 co-recipients Dr. Michael S. Brown and Dr. Joseph L. Goldstein

    whose studies of cholesterol have served as the foundation for the

    development of life-saving, cholesterol lowering drugs;

*  Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, a scientific leader who was recognized in 2002 for

    his seminal work on AIDS and other diseases of the immune system;

*  Dr. Arnold J. Levine, the inaugural recipient who co-discovered the p53

    protein, described as perhaps the most important tumor suppressor gene

    in human cancer.

 

Albany Medical Center is one of only 125 academic health sciences centers in the nation and the only such health care institution in northeastern New York.  With 6,500 staff members, this leading not-for-profit health care institution constitutes the largest private employer in Albany.  It includes one of New York’s largest teaching hospitals, the Albany Medical Center Hospital (founded in 1849); one of the nation’s oldest medical schools, the Albany Medical College (founded in 1839); and one of the Capital Region’s most active fundraising organizations, the Albany Medical Center Foundation, Inc.

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