The Raymond and Beverly Sackler International Prize in Biophysics
Laureates of the Raymond and Beverly Sackler International Prize in Biophysics 2019
Research Field: "Physical Principles of Biological Systems"
Prof. Ken A. Dill from the Department of Chemistry, Director of the Laufer Center for Physical and Quantitative Biology, Stony Brook University
Citation: Decisive contributions to the understanding of protein folding
Ken A. Dill played a pivotal role in the application of physical principles to the problem of protein folding – how a linear sequence of chained amino acids spontaneously collapses into a well-defined three-dimensional structure. He was among the very first to recognize the relevance of concepts from the statistical physics of polymer chains to protein structure, and to adapt these concepts to the transition of proteins from the denatured to the folded state. Ken Dill established the dominance of the hydrophobic effect – the tendency of poorly soluble amino acid groups to minimize contact with the aqueous surroundings – in determining the secondary and tertiary structures of proteins. Ken Dill demonstrated how proteins, rather than blindly sampling their vast number of spatial configurations, slide down a rugged, yet hierarchical, configurational landscape – a free-energy “funnel” – toward a well-defined free energy minimum corresponding to the folded state, thus accounting for the then-paradoxically fast kinetics of protein folding. These achievements became cornerstones in our understanding of protein structure and folding.
Prof. Michael Elowitz from the Departments of Biology, Bioengineering, and Applied Physics at California Institute of Technology, and investigator in Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Citation: Elucidating the physical principles of living cells by pioneering the field of synthetic biology and demonstrating the important role of stochastic fluctuations in cells and tissues.
Michael Elowitz pioneered the field of Synthetic Biology by designing and building the repressilator, a synthetic genetic oscillator composed of repressor genes. His work demonstrated that a mathematical understanding of biological circuits enables the deliberate design of new complex dynamical behaviors in cells. Synthetic biology is now commonly used to understand biological systems by reconstructing them, and to engineer new cellular functions for biomedical applications. A second field Michael Elowitz has pioneered is the study of ‘noise’ or stochastic fluctuations within cells. This work established unambiguously that variations in protein levels could arise from underlying stochastic fluctuations in the process of gene expression, due in part to low molecular concentrations within the cell. He later demonstrated the important functional roles these fluctuations play in enabling specific cellular behaviors. Noise is now recognized as a pervasive physical principle of biological circuits in virtually every context from bacteria to mammalian cells.