04/14/2011 07:00:00

Caltech Biologist Recognized for Cellular Noise Research

Nearly ten years ago, Michael Elowitz, Caltech Bren Scholar and professor of biology, bioengineering, and applied physics, first amplified the idea that stochasticity—or noise—plays an important role in the process of gene expression. Prior to his work, such cellular noise was treated as a mysterious property.

For his pioneering work on gene expression noise, Elowitz has been named the winner of the 2011 Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) Nakasone Award. The HFSP is a program that funds frontier research in the life sciences and the award is for breakthrough contributions at the frontier of the life sciences, either conceptual or methodological, that have had a major impact on basic biological research.

Elowitz's work introduced conceptual and experimental tools to detect gene expression noise, to quantify its level, and to evaluate its effect on cellular function. Genetic noise is now considered a core aspect of biology–one that functions actively in diverse cellular functions, including differentiation, regulation, and evolution.

Because of Elowitz's findings, noise has gone from being considered a curiosity of cellular life to being recognized as a key process whose effects must be considered in almost any analysis of biological systems. Stochastic processes are thought to enable stem cell differentiation and reprogramming, and developmental cell fates are controlled by noise. Thanks to Elowitz's work, noise is now recognized as an essential and functional element that distinguishes and enables the core cellular behaviors of life. 

Elowitz will give the HFSP Nakasone Lecture at the annual meeting of HFSP awardees to be held in Montreal, Canada in June

Written by Katie Neith