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American scientist's research of life's first cells

For her research of life's first cells, Irene Chen, a regional winner from North America and the Grand Prize winner, today was named to receive the $25,000 GE & Science Prize for Young Life Scientists, supported by GE Healthcare and the journal Science, which is published by AAAS, the nonprofit society.

Chen will receive her award in Stockholm, Sweden, on Monday, 11 December, during an award ceremony. She will also meet with Nobel Prize winners Andrew Fire and Craig Mello during her stay in Stockholm. Irene Chen received the grand prize for her essay, "The Emergence of Cells During the Origin of Life," which is being published in the 8 December issue of the journal Science.

"Dr. Chen has accomplished a remarkable effort at forward engineering the possible origins of cellular behavior," said Dr. Donald Kennedy, editor-in-chief of Science. "She created an evolutionary experiment among 'proto-cells' -- vesicles built of membrane materials, some of which contained RNAs functioning as enzymes whereas others did not. Some were favored competitively, demonstrating greater evolutionary fitness."

Chen describes how she has used simple "protocells" to study how life's earliest cells emerged. The protocells consist of a cell's two fundamentals: a self-replicating genome (in this case made of RNA) contained in a vesicle that separates the genome from the external environment. Chen describes how interactions between the RNA and the vesicle's membrane led to the emergence of certain basic cellular behaviors. For example, when the genome replicates inside a vesicle, osmotic pressure leads the vesicle to "steal" membrane from other, empty vesicles. This could be an example of Darwinian evolution, according to Chen. "Exploration of these minimal systems promises to lead to more exciting insights into the origins of biological complexity," she writes. Chen is currently completing medical school at Harvard and plans to continue to study molecules and evolution.

"The cell, as an evolutionary unit, could emerge from replicating molecules through very simple physical mechanisms," said Chen. "This work suggests that evolving higher levels of biological organization might have been surprisingly easy during the origin of life."

Born in San Diego, California, to Taiwanese-American parents, Chen majored in chemistry at Harvard University, and as an undergraduate studied molecular recognition in the laboratory of Gregory Verdine. She then entered the MD-PhD program and under the mentorship of Jack Szostak, she investigated the biophysics of the origin of life - work that was recognized by the Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Award.

"The award, now in its twelfth year, aims to recognize outstanding PhD graduate students from around the world and reward their research in the field of molecular biology," said Peter Ehrenheim, president of GE Healthcare Life Sciences. "Both Science/AAAS and GE believe that support of promising scientists at the beginning of their careers is critical for continued scientific progress."

Each year since 1995, the GE & Science Prize for Young Life Scientists has recognized outstanding young molecular biologists at an early stage of their careers. Some 54 regional winners and 12 grand prize winners have so far received the award, honoring exceptional thesis work in the field of molecular biology.

Applicants for the 2006 GE & Science Prize for Young Life Scientists earned their PhD degrees in 2005 and submitted a 1,000-word essay based on their dissertations. Their essays were judged on the quality of research and the applicants' ability to articulate how their work would contribute to the field of molecular biology, which investigates biological processes in terms of the physical and chemical properties of molecules in a cell.

A judging panel selects the GE & Science Prize for Young Life Sc ientists grand prize winner and may present regional awards in four geographic regions: North America, Europe, Japan and all other countries. These regional winners receive $5,000 awards. In addition to the grand prize, the 2006 awards also recognize the following regional winners:

Dianne Schwarz (North America): For her essay, "Unraveling the mysteries of small RNAs." Schwarz received a Bachelors of Science degree from the State University of New York at Albany. She did undergraduate research in the laboratory of Caro-Beth Stewart where she studied the function of short interspersed repeats in primate DNA. As a graduate student in Phillip D. Zamore's lab at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, she characterized the RNA interference (RNAi) pathway in Drosophila and humans, and the therapeutic application of RNAi to diseases such as Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Schwarz' thesis work was recognized with a 2005 Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Award. She is currently a Jane Coffin Childs postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Erin K. O'Shea at Harvard University where she studies stress response in yeast.

Bernhard Loll (Europe): For his essay "Photosystem II, a bioenergetic nanomachine." Loll was born in Ravensburg, Germany. He studied chemistry at the Albert-Ludwigs University in Freiburg, Germany, and received his diploma degree in 2000. During his diploma he worked in the group of G.E. Schulz and this stimulated his interest in biochemistry and protein-crystallography. He continued to follow these interests by pursuing PhD work in the group of W. Saenger at the Free University Berlin, Germany. There, Loll elucidated the three dimensional structure of photosystem II, in work done in cooperation with the group of A. Zouni from Technical University Berlin. Loll defended his PhD in February 2005 and is currently a postdoctoral scientist in the group of A. Meinhart at the Max Planck Institute fo r Medical Research in Heidelberg, Germany.

Ron Milo (All Other Countries): For his essay "Simple Building Blocks for Complex Networks." Milo grew up in Kfar-Saba, Israel. As an undergraduate, he studied physics and mathematics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His PhD research, conducted under the guidance of Uri Alon at the Weizmann Institute, centered on analyzing complex biological networks using network motifs. Milo continued in Alon's group as a postdoctoral fellow, and measured the variability and memory of protein levels in human cells. His doctoral research was recognized with a D. N. Chorafas award in 2004 and a J. F. Kennedy award in 2006. Milo is currently a fellow in the department of systems biology at Harvard medical school. In his spare time he enjoys investigating the beauty of nature in New-England together with his wife and daughter.

Source:American Association for the Advancement of Science

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