Whitehead Member Gerald Fink Receives Lifetime Achievement Award

August 5, 2002

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Whitehead Member Gerald Fink got a rousing "thank you" today from his colleagues in the field of yeast biology. The heartfelt recognition came in the form of the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award given at the biennial Yeast Genetics and Molecular Biology Meeting in Madison, Wisconsin. The breadth and depth of his achievements made the decision to select Fink as the first recipient of the award "a slam dunk" choice, said Tom Fox of Cornell University and a former student of Fink's, who presented the award.

Fink has repeatedly shown the power yeast hold for unraveling biological processes common to organisms from simple worms to creatures as complex as humans. But his contributions to yeast genetics go beyond innovative research to helping shape a community. He has enticed legions of biologists to join the yeast community, including many well-established investigators working in other areas and has championed the notion of sharing, not just ideas but also precious reagents such as yeast mutant strains.

Ground-breaking Research

Topping the list of Fink's technical contributions to the field was the 1978 development in his lab of a technique for "transforming" yeast. This strategy allowed researchers to introduce a foreign piece of DNA into yeast cells and study the subsequent inheritance and expression of that DNA. This unleashed the awesome power of yeast genetics as researchers around the world manipulated yeast at will. The method turned yeast into the eukaryotic equivalent of the simple E. Coli bacteria, organisms that could be genetically manipulated at will to test specific hypotheses about the function of any given gene. The technique set the stage for similar manipulations in more complex organisms, including mammals. It also laid the groundwork for the commercial use of yeast as biological factories for manufacturing vaccines and other protein drugs.

Over the years, Fink's creative use of classical genetics, biochemistry, and molecular biology has yielded numerous discoveries in several areas of yeast biology. His lab has pioneered a better understanding of gene regulation, mutation, and recombination (the process of gene shuffling between chromosomes). For instance, they have identified and cloned genes that regulate the biosynthesis of amino acids (the basic building blocks of all protein molecules) and that are involved in the process of two cells fusing during mating.

The Fink lab has used baker’s yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a harmless fungus, to understand how its more dangerous fungal relatives cause disease. In the last decade, the Fink lab made a paradigm-shifting discovery that baker’s yeast have the ability to switch from a benign, rounded form to an invasive filamentous form much like infectious fungi. This has led the Fink lab to new insights into the molecular mechanisms underlying infections with Candida albicans, the fungus that causes thrush in babies, vaginal infections, and life-threatening infections in immunocompromised patients. They have unraveled the wiring diagram underlying Candida’s ability to overpower the immune system, providing clues that may lead to new anti-fungal drugs.

More recently, they have found a key gene that allows fungi to stick to plastic surfaces and form thin coatings called biofilms. Similar biofilms are known to coat medical implants, causing serious complications in patients. Continually incorporating new technologies into their research, the lab is now using DNA arrays to study how infectious fungi evade the immune system. Fink's research shows that he is still at the forefront of biomedical research, says yeast geneticist Anita Hopper of Pennsylvania State University.

Passion for Teaching

Many of Fink’s ties within the yeast community were established through his integral role in the Yeast Genetics course at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island. At the invitation of James Watson, President of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Fink and another yeast aficionado, Fred Sherman of the University of Rochester, started the course in 1970, which they led for 16 years. Through the years, many researchers studying yeast—graduate students to full professors seeking to redirect or expand the focus of their research—have benefited from the training. For three weeks each summer, students learn the newest techniques used in yeast research and hear lectures from and meet with top scientists in the field. In recognition of his long associations with educational activities at the Laboratory, Fink was awarded one of the first Honorary Degrees given by Cold Spring Harbor.

Sherman recalls Fink's "marvelous" lecturing style, saying the talks he delivered had great clarity and logic. He also noted Fink's passion for working at the bench himself. At Cold Spring Harbor or even when he traveled, Fink invariably "carried a sterile loop" to examine the yeast growing on agar plates, says Sherman. The love of doing research—asking and being able to answer novel questions—has underpinned Fink's well-known insistence that people in the yeast community share the strains and other hard-to-generate biologic tools. Due in large measure to Fink's leadership, yeast research is renowned among life scientists for such communal behavior.

Fink has also helped launch successful careers of numerous scientists. Fink's energetic eloquence has readily lured bright students and postdoctoral fellows to work in his lab. Many of Fink's former students are now professors at universities across the United States, including Harvard, Yale, Cornell, and the University of California at Berkeley.

For example, Jef Boeke, now at the Johns Hopkins University, recalls the "electrifying" lecture he witnessed Fink give. Boeke's intention to move to California for postdoctoral studies dissolved on the spot. Instead, he went to Fink's lab at Cornell, to spend time that he treasures as being "a very high point in my scientific career." Boeke said that part of the thrill of being in Fink's lab came from witnessing an impressive diversity of projects going on simultaneously. That made Fink's lab "a place in which one gets an incredible education," noted Boeke.

Gerald Fink has received many awards from outside the yeast community. But this award is a thanks from his research family," says Fox.

by Beth Schachter


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