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UC Berkeley Synthetic Biologist Wins Heinz Award

Published: Friday, September 14, 2012
Last Updated: Friday, September 14, 2012
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Chemical and biomolecular engineering professor Jay Keasling, the Hubbard Howe Jr. Distinguished Professor in Biochemical Engineering, has been named as award recipient.

Established by Teresa Heinz in 1993 to honor the memory of her late husband, U.S. Senator John Heinz, the Heinz Awards celebrate the accomplishments and spirit of the senator by recognizing the extraordinary achievements of individuals in the areas of greatest importance to him. The award includes a medallion and an unrestricted cash prize of $250,000.

The awards, administered by the Heinz Family Foundation, annually recognize individuals for their contributions in the areas of Arts and Humanities; Environment; Human Condition; Public Policy; and Technology, the Economy and Employment. Keasling won in the technology category.

According to the award announcement:

As the driving force behind the emerging field of synthetic biology, Jay Keasling has engineered micro-organisms to operate as cellular “factories” and produce compounds with real-world applications. Combining molecular biology and genetic engineering in dramatic new ways, Dr. Keasling created an affordable method for the mass-production of artemisinin, a plant-derived, life-saving anti-malarial drug for use in developing countries. It was important to Dr. Keasling that artemisinin be affordable for children and adults in those countries, so he made the patent available to nonprofits royalty-free for that use. Expanding on the principles of his earlier work, he is now applying his research to other applications such as biofuels – including a carbon-neutral alternative jet fuel made from sugar. The compounds he is synthesizing from natural sources could replace petroleum products in many instances and promise to be both less polluting and more sustainable. Dr. Keasling has cofounded three companies and leads the Joint BioEnergy Institute in Emeryville, Calif.

Previous College of Chemistry alumni who have received a Heinz Award include Andrew Grove (Ph.D. ’63, ChemE), a co-founder of Intel, and Nobel Laureate Mario Molina (Ph.D. ’72, Chem). This year, of the four other Heinz awardees in addition to Keasling, three are UC Berkeley alumni: Mason Bates, KC Golden and Richard J. Jackson.

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