David Baulcombe, the Professor of Botany at Cambridge University, is being honored with the 2008 Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research for his discovery of how tiny RNA molecules govern gene activity through a process known as RNA silencing.
RNA (ribonucleic acid) is found in all living things, and is very similar to DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). If DNA is the blueprint for all life, then RNA delivers the instructions to the builders so they can make the necessary components for life, namely proteins.
The award is for the discovery of a new class of small RNA that regulates gene expression. In 1993, very tiny RNAs had been detected in worms by Victor Ambros and Gary Ruvkun in the US, who share this year's Lasker Award with David Baulcombe. At the time, the short RNAs were thought to be a peculiarity specific to worms.
However, in 1999, Baulcombe and a postdoctoral fellow in his laboratory, Andrew Hamilton, devised a hunt specifically for small RNAs in plant cells containing foreign genes. First they added foreign genes into plant cells either in the form of transgenes or as viruses and they then looked for the small RNAs. They did indeed find them but only under conditions in which the foreign genes were inactive. It was this crucial observation that then led them to propose that the small RNA were essential components in gene silencing mechanisms.
This discovery suggested that small RNAs exist in many organisms and hinted at the presence of a cellular machinery that creates these precisely-sized molecules and then uses them to silence gene activity. Baulcombe's research group has subsequently identified other components of this cellular machinery and characterized small RNA systems as natural weapons that can protect against virus disease.
Now, laboratories all over the world study these RNAs; the tiny molecules control a vast number of genes in plants as well as animals, and play roles in human health and disease, including cancer and viral infections. The presence of these molecules can be used to diagnose disease. In future, it may be possible to deliver small RNA as a drug to treat disease.
The unusual award of a Lasker to a botanist reflects the commonality of basic mechanisms in biology. Inside a plant cell there are many processes taking place that are very similar to those inside animals.
The Lasker Awards, sometimes referred to as 'America's Nobels,' are awarded to scientists and physicians who had made major advances in the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, cure and prevention of human disease.