Columbia to award 2011 Horwitz Prize to Brandeis biologists

Ground-breaking studies on the molecular basis of circadian rhythms lauded

Columbia University announced that it will award the 2011 Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize to Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash, and Michael W. Young for their work on the molecular basis of circadian rhythms, the first demonstration of a molecular mechanism for behavior.

Circadian rhythms―cyclic responses synchronized to the period of the day―are a fundamental aspect of behavior in humans and all other animals.

The Columbia University newsroom reported that Lee Goldman, M.D., executive vice president of Columbia University and dean of the faculties of health sciences and medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, said “It’s not often that researchers make discoveries that so quickly change our basic understanding of the biological world. This work by Hall, Rosbash, and Young did exactly that.”

Columbia University professor Wayne A. Hendrickson said this year's Horwitz Prize recognizes profound and far-reaching discoveries in molecular genetics, impacts physiology fundamentally and has medical implications as well.

The 2011 Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize Lectures will take place on November 21. Dr. Hall’s lecture is titled "The Seminal Clock Mutants in Drosophila, in Context of the Emergence of Neurogenetics and Molecular-Genetic Neurobiology.” Dr. Rosbash’s lecture is titled “Old and New Features of Circadian Rhythms.” Dr. Young’s lecture is titled "The Genetics of Sleep and Circadian Rhythms in Drosophila."

Molecular cloning of the gene named period, which is needed to maintain circadian rhythm in the brain of the fruit fly Drosophila, was achieved independently and nearly simultaneously by Hall and Rosbash, working together at Brandeis University, and by Young at Rockefeller University, in 1984. Subsequently, the Hall and Rosbash laboratories, working mainly collaboratively, and the separate Young laboratory made additional discoveries crucial to understanding the comprehensive molecular mechanism by which the 24-hour clock is maintained and adjusted in response to artificially altered lengths of day. The Hall-Rosbash-Young mechanism of the molecular clock was later found to be universal in the biological world.

The research has direct implications for the treatment of human disorders. Several hereditary sleep disorders, for example, map to human homologs of the fly period gene, providing a basis for the development of treatments of sleep and rhythm disorders.

“One of the best things about doing this research,” said Dr. Hall, “was that the results came out better than we, or at least I, intended. Taking a semi-major step toward elucidating the molecular basis of circadian rhythms in Drosophila was rewarding enough. Little did we know, back then in the 1980s, that our findings had the potential to apply to an appreciable proportion of the biological world writ large ―beyond a matter of the ‘first clock gene cloned,’ proceeding to how this gene functions in Drosophila. This, too, turned out to have broader than insect-bound significance."

Rosbash said that having all this fun―doing science and, very occasionally, doing something important―is its own reward.

“I also had the pleasure of collaborating with my friend and colleague Jeff Hall and for more than two decades," said Rosbash. "So it is an unexpected surprise to be recognized with this honor. It is also humbling to be in the company of the marvelous scientists who have received the Horwitz Prize before us.”

Visit the Columbia University Medical Center for additional information about the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize.


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