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Ptashne Wins Lasker Award for Gene Research

* Former Harvard Professor Honored For Molecular Work

By Justin C. Danilewitz, CRIMSON STAFF WRITER

In recognition of his ground-breaking research on gene regulation, former Smith Professor of Molecular Biology Mark S. Ptashne yesterday won the 1997 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award.

According to a news release from the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, Ptashne "pioneered the molecular basis of gene regulation and isolated the molecule called a 'lambda repressor' which functions as a switch turning gene expression on and off."

Ptashne's award-winning research was conducted during his tenure as a Harvard professor.

Members of Harvard's Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology unanimously praised Ptashne and his work.

Cabot Professor of Biology Richard M. Losick called Ptashne a "giant in the field of gene regulation [who] made fundamental contributions over the course of many years to understanding gene regulation."

Losick said that Ptashne's principal contribution to the field of molecular biology was the discovery of the principles under which "regulatory molecules" controlling the function of genes can be applied to eukaryotic, or multi-celled organisms.

Ptashne also wrote a highly-acclaimed and widely-read book on the subject of his research called A Genetic Switch.

In August, Ptashne resigned in August from his position at Harvard to become the Ludwig professor of molecular biology at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. He moved his Harvard laboratory to New York as well.

While Losick said he was not aware of the specific details in Ptashne's decision to relocate his laboratory to New York, he said he believed that Ptashne "was given a very handsome offer from the Sloan-Kettering institute."

Mallinckrodt Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biography James C. Wang, whose laboratory is located next to Ptashne's old Harvard laboratory, said he views Ptashne's resignation from the Harvard faculty as "a big loss to Harvard," but said that he thought his award was "a wonderful thing."

Wang said that Ptashne's receipt of the Lasker Award "is a very nice recognition of his achievements" considering Ptashne's "fundamental contributions to gene regulation."

He said that he believed Ptashne would return to Harvard to give a seminar on the topic of his area of research in the near future.

Mallinckrodt Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology Tom Maniatis, who worked with ptashne as a post-doctoral fellow and collaborated with him on much of his research, including Ptashne's investigation of repressors, said that the award to Ptashne is "long overdue."

Maniatis said that Ptashne and Loeb University Professor Walter Gilbert, "were the first to actually isolate a repressor."

Repressors-molecules that turn genes off-have subsequently played a key role in the study of gene regulation.

Maniatis said that Ptashne "contributed as much as any single individual to our current understanding of gene regulation."

Maniatis also said that he was "devastated" that ptashne had decided to leave Harvard and that his departure was "a major loss for the department-for Harvard." He said that Ptashne, "in many ways, sort of defined the culture of the department."

However, some former students were not as flattering in their portrayal of Ptashne.

One student, who asked not to be identified, said that she thought Ptashne was not a very good teacher because his lectures were disorganized.

"I think he spent more time on his research than he did on his teaching. He pretty much told us that himself," she said.

But other students said that Ptashne's vast research experience helped make him a better instructor.

"I really liked him," said Catherine K. Huang '98. "I thought that he presented his research that he had done in a way that was easily understandable."

Huang also said that A Genetic Switch was a major factor in her decision to pursue molecular biology further.

According to the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, as part of his award, Ptashne "will receive an honorarium, a citation highlighting his achievements, and an inscribed statuette of the winged Victory of Samothrace, the Foundations's traditional symbol of humankind's victory over disability, disease and death.

Wang said that Ptashne's receipt of the Lasker Award "is a very nice recognition of his achievements" considering Ptashne's "fundamental contributions to gene regulation."

He said that he believed Ptashne would return to Harvard to give a seminar on the topic of his area of research in the near future.

Mallinckrodt Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology Tom Maniatis, who worked with ptashne as a post-doctoral fellow and collaborated with him on much of his research, including Ptashne's investigation of repressors, said that the award to Ptashne is "long overdue."

Maniatis said that Ptashne and Loeb University Professor Walter Gilbert, "were the first to actually isolate a repressor."

Repressors-molecules that turn genes off-have subsequently played a key role in the study of gene regulation.

Maniatis said that Ptashne "contributed as much as any single individual to our current understanding of gene regulation."

Maniatis also said that he was "devastated" that ptashne had decided to leave Harvard and that his departure was "a major loss for the department-for Harvard." He said that Ptashne, "in many ways, sort of defined the culture of the department."

However, some former students were not as flattering in their portrayal of Ptashne.

One student, who asked not to be identified, said that she thought Ptashne was not a very good teacher because his lectures were disorganized.

"I think he spent more time on his research than he did on his teaching. He pretty much told us that himself," she said.

But other students said that Ptashne's vast research experience helped make him a better instructor.

"I really liked him," said Catherine K. Huang '98. "I thought that he presented his research that he had done in a way that was easily understandable."

Huang also said that A Genetic Switch was a major factor in her decision to pursue molecular biology further.

According to the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, as part of his award, Ptashne "will receive an honorarium, a citation highlighting his achievements, and an inscribed statuette of the winged Victory of Samothrace, the Foundations's traditional symbol of humankind's victory over disability, disease and death.

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