Lubert Stryer wins National Medal of Science

Neurobiologist Lubert Stryer, MD, of the Stanford University School of Medicine, will receive the nation's highest scientific honor, the National Medal of Science, for his achievements in a wide range of fields that included the development of a DNA chip used in genetics.

Stryer, the Mrs. George A. Winzer Professor of Cell Biology, Emeritus, and professor emeritus of neurobiology, will be one of eight scientists to receive the 2006 award at a White House ceremony on July 27.

Philip Pizzo, MD, dean of the Stanford School of Medicine, said he was thrilled to hear the news. "Lubert Stryer is a true legend as a scientist and scholar whose name also is known to students of biochemistry because of his classic book on this topic," he said.

Although best known for developing a gene chip and for writing a biochemistry textbook, Stryer, 69, also made major contributions to diverse areas of research. His research over four decades has dealt with the interplay of light and life. He made landmark contributions to understanding proteins on the molecular level through the use of fluorescence spectroscopy techniques that he pioneered. He also helped explain how the eye's retina processes light.

"Lubert Stryer is one of the last Renaissance men in biomedical research," said Tobias Meyer, PhD, a Stanford professor of chemical and systems biology who did postdoctoral work under Stryer. "He combines a broad knowledge of science with amazing communication skills and an ability to translate his research discoveries into practical applications."

The highest profile product of his work, the microarray "gene chip," took root during his 1989 leave of absence from Stanford to help found Affymax, a therapeutic drug discovery company in Palo Alto. Serving as its president and scientific director for one year, Stryer helped develop a new method for generating vast numbers of compounds in a relatively small number of steps. This light-directed method of generating microarrays is used today by Affymetrix, the Santa Clara company later spun off from Affymax, to make DNA chips for genetic analyses. Stryer still serves as the chair of the scientific advisory board at Affymetrix.

In addition to his major research advancements, Stryer was dedicated to teaching, and sought to develop better educational materials. The result was Biochemistry, a widely used textbook now in its sixth edition. "His textbook set new milestones for teaching and got thousands of medical and biology students around the world excited about pursuing careers in biomedical research," said Meyer, who used the text in his own graduate studies in Switzerland in the 1980s.

Born to German and Russian parents who escaped to China before World War II, Stryer emigrated to the United States with his family in 1948, at the age of 10. In a public high school in New York, he immersed himself in a research project on the lifespan of microscopic aquatic animals and said he found himself "hooked on research for life."

As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, he thought he wanted to be a doctor and, after graduating in 1957, he attended Harvard Medical School. In his third year of medical school, he decided that research was his true calling, so upon graduation in 1961, instead of a clinical internship, he went to the physics department at Harvard.

In 1962, he went to the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, at an exciting time. His mentor was John Kendrew, PhD, and two of his other colleagues were Francis Crick, PhD, and Max Perutz, PhD. All three received Nobel Prizes that year.

Stryer first came to Stanford in 1963 as an assistant professor of biochemistry. "I had the good fortune of being nurtured by Arthur Kornberg, Paul Berg, Robert Baldwin and other members of that remarkable department," he said. He was promoted to associate professor before leaving the department in 1969 to become professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University. Stanford recruited him back seven years later to be the first chair of the Department of Structural Biology. His interests shifted to neurobiology, where he is currently an emeritus professor.

At each juncture of his research career, Stryer contributed to leaps in knowledge.

The development of what he termed "a spectroscopic ruler," a method of measuring molecular distances using fluorescence, is one of his major contributions. This technique is used today in thousands of labs. "I wanted to develop ways of looking at protein molecules in solution in action," he said of his method, which yields valuable information about what atoms are neighbors and how far apart they reside in large, complex protein molecules.

As he later began to work more with neurobiologists, notably Denis Baylor, MD, now an emeritus professor of neurobiology, Stryer embarked on research to figure out how light acting on a protein (rhodopsin) in the retina can trigger a signal in neurons that ultimately leads to a visual image in the brain. His group discovered a protein called transducin, which amplifies the change of a single rhodopsin molecule hundreds of times, explaining how the retina can be sensitive enough to register extremely subtle changes in light.

It turned out that this amplification scheme operates not only in vision, but it also occurs in many other systems. It's a generalized way of amplifying a signal.

Stryer has at least 130 scientific publications to his credit. He is also an inventor on 50 U.S. patents.

"Stanford has just been a fabulous place for cutting-edge research that crosses departmental lines," said Stryer, reflecting on his years here - and projecting ahead. As an emeritus faculty member, he is actively involved in helping plan future strategies in neurobiology, helping to unite the biologists with engineering, physics, chemistry and information sciences researchers. "Interdisciplinary research is the future, particularly as we seek a real understanding of the brain," he said.

Stryer's award comes nearly two months after two other Stanford researchers were named 2005 National Medal of Science recipients. Gordon Bower, PhD, the Albert Ray Lang Professor of Psychology, Emeritus, and Bradley Efron, the Max H. Stein Professor and Professor of Statistics and of Health Research and Policy, were selected to receive the 2005 medals.

The National Medals of Science & Technology, established by Congress in 1959, is the nation's highest scientific honor. Both the 2006 and 2005 medals will be presented to the laureates by President George W. Bush at a White House ceremony on July 27.

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