David Bartel wins HHMI appointment

March 22, 2005

Tags: Bartel LabAwards + Announcements

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (March 22, 2005) — 2005 is off to a good start for Whitehead Member David Bartel. In January, he and his colleagues published a landmark paper in the journal Cell indicating that a newly discovered layer of human gene regulation is far more widespread than previously appreciated. A week later he was honored with the National Academy of Science's prestigious Award in Molecular Biology. And in March, Bartel was appointed Investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

“These are wonderful honors,” says Bartel, a professor of biology at MIT. “And with HHMI support, my lab can do things that were far more difficult to do in the past.”

Bartel isn't the only HHMI Investigator at Whitehead. Interim Director David Page has been an investigator since 1990, and Susan Lindquist was an HHMI investigator before coming to Whitehead in 2001.

Becoming an HHMI Investigator isn't easy. Out of the 320 U.S. scientists who were nominated this year, 43 were chosen. And competitions only occur every few years. Currently there are about 300 HHMI Investigators in the U.S.

HHMI Investigators remain at their original institution, but HHMI pays their salary and funds the bulk of their research. Emphasis is placed on the researcher's overall scientific track rather than individual projects. “That's really the dream of every scientist,” says Bartel, “to have that support to do what you think is most exciting regardless of the risk.” Bartel's research has recently been highlighted by the discovery of the abundance of microRNAs, molecules that play an active role in regulating the genomes of both plants and mammals by interrupting a gene’s ability to produce protein. It wasn't until 2000 that scientists were aware that these molecules existed in humans. Now, as shown in the recent Cell paper, Bartel and his colleagues have found that more than one third of the human genes are at least partially controlled by microRNAs. And, Bartel says, that number is a conservative estimate. This starkly contradicts the long-held assumption that RNA is little more than a passive intermediary between DNA and protein.

This area of research is also exciting due to its potential therapeutic applications. For example, using a technique known as RNA interference, or RNAi, researchers are shutting off genes by delivering into cells artificial microRNA-like molecules called short interfering RNAs (siRNAs). Learning more about how microRNAs operate in human cells should help scientists to understand how best to exploit siRNAs for treating disease.

“When I look at how far David's research has come in his eleven years at Whitehead, I'm simply amazed,” says Page. “He started here in 1994 as a Fellow, fresh out of Harvard. After just a few years he's one of the world's leading researchers in the study of RNA.”

“What HHMI is really doing is honoring and endorsing my whole lab,” Bartel says. “It isn't mainly me, but the work of all the students, postdocs and others, plus our collaborators, who have made our lab what it is.”

HHMI Whitehead Alumni

Here are Whitehead alumni among current Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigators, with their Whitehead lab and current affiliation.

Frederick W. Alt (Baltimore lab), Children’s Hospital, Boston
Angelika Amon (former Fellow), MIT
Nancy Andrews (Baltimore lab), Harvard Medical School
Cornelia Bargmann (Weinberg lab), Rockefeller University
David Bartel (new appointee), Whitehead
Douglas Black (Baltimore lab), University of California/Los Angeles
Constance L. Cepko (Mulligan lab), Harvard Medical School
William Dietrich (Genome Center), Harvard Medical School
Steven Dowdy (Weinberg lab), University of California/San Diego
Todd Golub (Genome Center), Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Broad Institute
Tyler Jacks (Weinberg lab), MIT
Leonid Kruglyak (Genome Center), Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
Bruce Lahn (Page lab), University of Chicago
Jeannie Lee (Jaenisch lab), Harvard Medical School
Ruth Lehmann (former Member), New York University
Erin K. O'Shea (Kim lab), University of California/San Francisco
David C. Page, Whitehead
G. Shirleen Roeder (Fink lab), Yale University
David G. Schatz (Baltimore lab), Yale University
Brenda A. Schulman (Kim lab, new appointee), St. Jude Children's Research Hospital
Stephen T. Smale (Baltimore lab), University of California/Los Angeles
Thomas Tuschl (Bartel lab, new appointee), Rockefeller University
Jonathan S. Weissman (Kim lab), University of California/San Francisco
Charles S. Zuker (Lodish lab), University of California/San Diego

Written by David Cameron.


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