60 Members Elected to NAS

Editor's Note: On May 2, the National Academy of Sciences announced the election of 60 new members and 15 foreign associates from nine countries in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research. Nearly half of the new members are life scientists. In this article, The Scientist presents photographs of some of the new members and comments from a few of them on their careers and on past and current research. A full directory of NAS members can be found online a

By | June 26, 2000

Editor's Note: On May 2, the National Academy of Sciences announced the election of 60 new members and 15 foreign associates from nine countries in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research. Nearly half of the new members are life scientists. In this article, The Scientist presents photographs of some of the new members and comments from a few of them on their careers and on past and current research. A full directory of NAS members can be found online at www.nas.edu/nas.


Father of a Discipline

If fathering an entire discipline qualifies a scientist for membership in the National Academy of Sciences, then Indiana University's Jeffrey Palmer rated election hands down. A lot of people would agree with Indiana colleague Loren Rieseberg: "Palmer almost singlehandedly created the rapidly growing field of molecular plant systematics." That's pretty good for somebody who, Palmer says, "waited till the end of college to find out what a gene was."

Once he found out ... well, the rest is history. Palmer started exploring the chloroplast genome in the late '70s as a Stanford University graduate student and quickly realized how important its genes could be for deciphering plant evolution. By attracting a bevy of young scientists to his laboratory eager to jump on the haywagon (some with little or no experience in molecular biology), Palmer seeded the young field with trained, enthusiastic investigators. He's also delved into mitochondrial genomes, transfer of mitochondrial and chloroplast genes to the nucleus, and the origin and evolution of introns.

Recently, Palmer's laboratory combined nuclear, mitochondrial, and chloroplast gene sequences to help decipher early branches in the seed plant family tree. Concludes Rieseberg, himself a leader in plant evolutionary genetics, "I can think of no one who has contributed more to our understanding of how eukaryotic genomes evolve and interact."

--Barry A. Palevitz


'Immersed in Research'

National Science Foundation director Rita Colwell has received many honors and awards over the years, but she regards her recent election to the NAS as especially rewarding because it affirms her work at the University of Maryland. "The ideas and concepts weren't always generally accepted, but I persevered rather stubbornly," says Colwell. The first female NSF director, Colwell says she never thought about holding the prestigious position before her nomination. "I was thoroughly immersed in research and teaching at the University of Maryland," she explains.

Colwell still has an active lab there and interacts closely with her students. She's especially excited about recent studies on Vibrio cholerae, the bacterium that causes cholera, a major drinking water contaminant in several Third World countries. By using satellite data to monitor the timing and spread of the bacterium, her lab has brought together ecology, medicine, microbiology, oceanography, and space science holistically to address a basic research problem that is simultaneously a societal problem. Recent satellite data (B. Lobitz et al., "Climate and infectious disease: use of remote sensing for detection of Vibrio cholerae by indirect measurement," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 97:1438-43, Feb. 15, 2000), in conjunction with studies done in the last 25 years, suggest that cholera spread and climate are linked.

Colwell's not only the first woman to be NSF director, but the first life scientist as well. "In an era when the life sciences are literally exploding, it is helpful to be from the field," she comments. She adds that she's acquired a better appreciation for the physical, mathematical, and engineering sciences through her husband, who is a physicist, and her two brothers, who are engineers.

As for the prospect of increasing the number of women elected to the NAS, Colwell comments, "It's like the receding glaciers in Antarctica. It's a very slow thing." She notes that she's met many extraordinary female scientists. Says Colwell, "There are a lot of potential candidates out there."

--Nadia S. Halim


The Two-Hybrid Method

Stanley Fields cites his development of the two-hybrid method, a well-known technique for studying protein interactions, as the major accomplishment of his career and the major reason for his election to the NAS. Research on the system, which was developed in the late 1980s, was spurred by a perceived need for a scientific method for studying protein interactions--and by a biotechnology proposal calling for a commercially patentable idea from his home university.

Fields, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and a professor of genetics and medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle, also helped elucidate the function of the tumor suppressor p53, one of the most commonly mutated in all human cancers. Starting in 1990, his lab was among the first to show, first in a yeast assay and then in mammalian cells, that p53, once thought to be an oncogene, actually initiates transcription (P. Uetz et al., "A comprehensive analysis of protein-protein interactions in Saccharomyces cerevisiae," Nature, 403:623-7, Feb. 10, 2000).

Fields' lab continues to study protein function; he and his colleagues recently developed a protein linkage map identifying nearly 1,000 protein-protein interactions in the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae (S. Fields, S.K. Jang, "Presence of a potent transcription activating sequence in the p53 protein," Science, 249:1046-9, 1990). "The more general theme in the lab has been using yeast to develop technologies that look at protein function," remarks Fields. His team recently, for example, collaborated on an approach, dubbed "biochemical genomics," in which investigators can purify tagged yeast proteins to look for biochemical activities.

--Eugene Russo


Building a Bridge

Joan Massague, Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and chair of cell biology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, wasn't dissuaded by the challenge of entering an emerging field. He plunged into studying transforming growth factor-ß (TGF-ß) in the early '80s when little was known about these unique, hormonelike factors. His recent NAS membership recognizes his contribution to the fields of signal transduction and cell growth control in relation to TGF-ß. "By and large, people studying one area were not making a dent on the other. We were able to [bridge] the two areas of study and show that signals originating on the cell membrane lead to gene responses involved in cell division," he explains.

TGF-ß binds with a receptor on the surface of the cell to induce a reaction, which releases a protein called Smad from an anchor protein, SARA. Smad then travels to the nucleus, where it changes gene expression. Disruption of this signaling process can lead to several

inherited diseases, including cancer. Most recently his lab published the basis for the specific recognition of target genes by Smad (A. Hata et al., "OAZ uses distinct DNA- and protein-binding zinc fingers in separate BMP-Smad and Olf signaling pathways," Cell, 100:229-40, Jan. 21, 2000).

--Nadia S. Halim


He Wrote the Book

Although Charles A. Janeway knew he was being considered for election to the NAS, the congratulatory letter from the academy still took him completely by surprise. "I immediately thought of a bunch of people who should've been elected and weren't," he says. "I'm really not quite sure why I got elected to the National Academy." A Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and professor of immunobiology at Yale University, Janeway guesses that his nomination isn't due to any one discovery, but rather to his general contributions to the field of immunology, specifically the areas of innate and adaptive immunity, and to his popular immunology textbooks.

He does, however, cite one major finding of his that provided insight into the workings of innate immunity: In 1997, his group became the first to identify a human homologue to the Drosophila toll protein (Toll), which had been shown to induce an innate immune response in adult fruit flies (R. Medzhitov et al., "A human homologue of the Drosophila Toll protein signals activation of adaptive immunity," Nature, 388:394-7, 1997). In the few years since, his lab and others have discovered several human toll proteins. Such findings could facilitate vaccine development by giving scientists a better idea of how to trigger adaptive immunity.

Janeway is currently working on the adaptive immune response. His group has evidence that both T and B cells are "self-referential," or built on self-recognition. Although this characteristic is not strong enough to activate lymphocytes, says Janeway, it's still necessary for cells to stay alive. His group's work could help scientists better understand autoimmunity.

But Janeway calls his teaching and his textbook, Immunobiology: The Immune System in Health and Disease, his proudest achievements. The first edition of the book took seven years to write; three subsequent editions required only minor modifications. A fifth edition, due out next year, will have a major change: He's merged the chapters on T and B cells to emphasize the two cells' similarities. He's also added a chapter on innate immunity. According to Janeway, the books are a major commitment in light of his teaching and laboratory duties.

--Eugene Russo

New NAS Members

Peter Agre

Robert Cousins
Courtesy of University of Michigan

Jack Dixon

Stanley Fields

Charles Janeway
Courtesy of Arnold Adler, © 1999

Roderick MacKinnon

Robert Mahley

Barbara Meyer

Eric Olson

Rita Colwell
Courtesy of Photographic Services, Indiana University

Jeffrey Palmer

Douglas Rees

Robert Waterston

Joan Massague

Reed Wickner

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