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04/28/2006 07:00:00

Benzer Receives $500,000 Albany Medical Center Prize

PASADENA, Calif.--Seymour Benzer, a California Institute of Technology 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.

In the 1960s, 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 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 circadian rhythm, courtship, learning, and memory 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 the James Griffin Boswell Professor of Neuroscience, Emeritus (Active), at Caltech. 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 died 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.

The Albany Medical Center Prize is the largest prize in medicine in the United States and worldwide is second only to the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. The annual prize--announced each spring--was 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 1950s, 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.

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.


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Written by Jill Perry