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09/25/2007 07:00:00

MacArthur Foundation Names Two New Caltech "Geniuses"

PASADENA, Calif.--Two California Institute of Technology faculty members were named MacArthur Fellows today, each winning a five-year, $500,000 grant awarded to creative, original individuals that is often referred to as the "genius grant."

Michael Elowitz, Bren Scholar and assistant professor of biology and applied physics, and Paul W. Rothemund, a senior research fellow in computation and neural systems and computer science, are two of 24 MacArthur Fellows honored today. The accomplishments of both of this year's winners highlight the interdisciplinary nature of Caltech's research endeavors.

Michael Elowitz is a molecular biologist who combines mathematical and computational modeling with experiments on individual living cells to understand how genes and proteins interact to form circuits. These circuits allow the cells to interact with their environments, communicate with one another, and develop into multicellular organisms. He uses two different approaches; in the first, he tracks changes in proteins in natural genetic circuits with time-lapse movies, and in the second, he engineers new circuits that provoke alternative cellular behaviors. In one demonstration of new cell behavior, Elowitz created a simple synthetic genetic clock by programming cells to show oscillations in the level of a fluorescent protein as the cells grew.

More recently, Elowitz tackled the long-standing question of how cells reliably control their own behavior when the intracellular environment they depend on is so complex and unpredictable. He used fluorescence again; in this case, differences between how much of a red protein and how much of a green protein the cell made allowed him to see to what extent the expression of genes is intrinsically random. Currently, his lab investigates how cells make decisions about differentiating into different cell types.

"I was just dumbfounded, befuddled," Elowitz says about the phone call that told him he was a MacArthur Fellowship recipient. "It's amazing, it's very hard to believe. It just wasn't something I had thought about, and it was out of the blue." He stresses that his research is very collaborative, and says that "by far the greatest pleasure has been working with and learning from a spectacularly talented and fun group of scientists." He has no plans yet for the cash award.

After earning degrees from UC Berkeley and Princeton University, Elowitz joined the Caltech faculty in 2003.

Paul Rothemund's work, which he began over a decade ago, borrows tools from molecular biology to show that DNA can be used to perform the tasks of a computer.

Recently, he's used computers to design large DNA molecules that reliably self-assemble into microscopic shapes and patterns, like a map of the Americas or a pair of smiley faces 100 nanometers wide and two nanometers thick. He calls his technique "scaffolded DNA origami" because it involves folding a very long strand of DNA dozens of times, into different designs. Rothemund says this kind of DNA technology might eventually be used to build smaller, faster computers. He also envisions far more fantastical potentials, like building whole organisms from self-assembling biological bits.

Rothemund considers himself lucky to be working at a moment in history that has provided his detail-oriented personality with something to do. "I really like to make intricate things with lots of little parts. In a different age I'd probably be a watchmaker, although I am not that mechanically inclined." He has yet to decide what he'll do with the grant money, besides travel for future collaborations.

In keeping with the MacArthur tradition, the Caltech nominees did not know they were being considered. "It is amazing that such a thing exists," says Rothemund. "That one can pursue beautiful or meaningful or societally redeeming things with no interest in doing it for money, and then out of the blue, someone walks in and says 'Surprise, we're going to give you half a million dollars to keep doing whatever you think is beautiful or meaningful or important, and there are no strings attached and we aren't going to keep track of you or bother you again ever. . . bye!'"

After receiving degrees from the California Institute of Technology and from the University of Southern California, Rothemund returned to Caltech as a Beckman Fellow in 2001. He joins ranks with the director of his lab, Associate Professor of Computer Science and Computation and Neural Systems Erik Winfree, who was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2000.

Written by elisabeth nadin