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Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Houston, Texas

Images from biochemistry and molecular biology research
Verna and Marrs McLean Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
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Thirty Eighth Annual McLean Lectures, 2010

Schedule of Events for Feb. 4, 2010

  • 2 p.m. - "What We Can Learn About the Origins of Life from Efforts to Design an Artificial Cell", Jack W. Szostak, Ph.D. (Cullen Auditorium)
  • 3 p.m. - Reception in Rayzor Lounge
  • 3:30 p.m. - "The Excitement of Space and Earth Exploration", Charles Elachi, Ph.D., M.B.A. (Cullen Auditorium)


Dr. Jack W. Szostak is an original thinker of the first order. Born in London England, he grew up in Canada, mostly in Ottawa and Montreal. He was interested in science from an early age, successfully avoiding self-immolation when he used his chemistry set to generate pure oxygen, which he ignited with an ethanol burner. Dr. Szostak obtained his BS degree in cell biology at McGill University at the young age of 19. Influenced by a charismatic phycology professor as an undergraduate, he began his graduate career with the idea of developing Eudorina elegans into a genetically tractable model organism. When that proved impossible, he joined the laboratory of Dr. Ray Wu at Cornell University, where he developed ways to use oligonucleotides to probe specific RNA molecules. He counts the laborious synthesis of these oligos as his “worst job.” In 1979, Dr. Szostak joined the Genetics Department at Harvard Medical School, where he became professor in 1988. In 1998, he was selected as a Howard Hughes Investigator, and in 2000, he became the Alex Rich Distinguished Investigator in the Department of Molecular Biology at Mass General Hospital at Harvard.

Dr. Szostak began his career at Harvard University, investigating the interactions of plasmids with chromosomes in yeast, using the recently discovered technique of DNA transformation. In a remarkable series of experiments, he worked out the rules for homologous recombination between plasmids and chromosomes, highlighting the key role of double stranded DNA ends. He generalized these rules in a watershed paper in 1983 that laid out the double-strand break repair model of homologous recombination. This model has driven research into meiotic recombination and genome modification, and has spawned a set of derivative models that collectively describe the vast majority of recombination events that occur in cells. Armed with the clear appreciation of the reactivity of DNA ends, he was astounded to hear Liz Blackburn talk at a Gordon Conference about stable DNA ends in ciliates. They collaborated to test whether ciliate DNA ends could stabilize linear plasmids in yeast cells. Dr. Szostak considered this a low probability experiment, but it yielded the “most clear-cut results I’ve ever gotten.” It led to the cloning of yeast telomeres in 1982 and brought the power of yeast genetics to bear on the problem of telomere biology. It also provided a key element that allowed Dr. Szostak to construct the first yeast artificial chromosome in 1983. By the late 80s, Dr. Szostak was looking for new frontiers and the work on catalytic RNAs (ribozymes) caught his attention. Limited by the properties of existing ribozymes, he developed ways to evolve new RNAs (and now DNAs and proteins) with novel binding and catalytic properties. More recently, he has extended this work to test ideas about early protocells. His current research focuses entirely on the origin of life: the transition from chemistry to Darwinian evolution.

Dr. Szostak is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He has been awarded many honors and prizes, including the Heineken Prize in Biophysics and Chemistry, the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, and in 2009 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider for their groundbreaking work on telomeres.

Dr. Charles Elachi has achieved his boyhood dream of space exploration. An unlikely accomplishment, perhaps, for a boy born in Rayak, Lebanon, but he was possessed of a curious mind and inspired by people and events. Sleeping outside in the warm summer nights of Lebanon, he would look to the sky and wonder “What’s up there? Are there people on some other planet looking at me?” When he was 10, Sputnik was launched and he listened to it on the radio. Dr. Elachi remembers very clearly reading in Science in America, an informational magazine distributed by the American Embassy, about the first satellite launch—Explorer I—by a place called JPL, and thinking “Gee, that would be a great place to work.” In high school, he was inspired to get involved in science by an outstanding science teacher, who was funny and made science fun. His parents had only high school educations, but they encouraged him to do whatever he wanted to do: “The sky is the limit as long as you work hard.” “I was just a boy in a little town in the Middle East, like a thousand other little boys, but my parents always would tell me that whatever I could dream, if I worked hard at it, I would get there.” And work hard, he did. Dr. Elachi got his BS in physics from University of Grenoble, France and a Diplome Ingenieur in engineering from the Polytechnic Institute, Grenoble in 1968. He decided to attend graduate school at Caltech, largely due to a chance connection between his professor in France and a professor at Caltech. Only after arriving at Caltech did he discover that the university manages the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). In his second year, he applied for and got a summer job at JPL, and liked it so much that he dropped his Ford Foundation Fellowship so he could work at JPL, where he has been ever since. Dr. Elachi received his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Caltech in 1971, an MS degree in geology from UCLA, and an MBA from USC. He is now Professor of Electrical Engineering and Planetary Science at Caltech, Vice President of Caltech, and since 2001, the Director of JPL.

During his 35-year career at JPL, Dr. Elachi has led the efforts to use radar for imaging purposes, helping to make JPL and NASA world leaders in the field of spaceborne imaging radar. This technology has proven essential in peering through the cloud cover of Venus and the hazy atmosphere of Titan. Perhaps most exciting is the Cassini mission to Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. Titan is one of the most Earth-like worlds in the Solar system, with a dense atmosphere rich in organics, a surface shaped by rivers and lakes of liquid ethane and methane, and rocks of water ice. Many believe that Titan is a prebiotic planet, with an active chemistry, but no biology as yet. Dr. Elachi’s role in the current missions is “to provide the vision of where we are heading and then create an environment for people to excel—and then get out of their way.”

When he took over leadership at JPL, the institution was at a critical juncture, having had back-to-back failed Mars missions in 1999, one of which was caused by not converting key data from English to metric units. He has proven to be an effective administrator and a visionary. He has dedicated himself to picking “the missions that are really difficult to do, almost at the edge of impossible,” and to pursuing them “in the context of shedding light on the evolution of life…in ours and neighboring solar systems.” Dr. Elachi was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1989 and has been selected to receive numerous awards and prizes. In recognition of his contributions to planetary exploration, an asteroid was renamed 4116 Elachi.

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