UW Today

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July 7, 2005

Genome Sciences chair to receive international prize

Dr. Robert Waterston, chair of the UW School of Medicine’s Department of Genome Sciences, has been selected by an international panel of experts to receive the 2005 Genetics Prize of the Peter Gruber Foundation. Last year the same prize went to Dr. Mary-Claire King, UW professor of medicine and genome sciences, and American Cancer Society professor.

Waterston, who came to the UW in 2003 from Washington University in St. Louis, also holds the William H. Gates III Endowed Chair in Biomedical Sciences.

The Gruber Foundation annually presents its gold medal and a $200,000 unrestricted cash award to an outstanding scientist who has contributed to fundamental advances in the field of genetics. This year’s prize will be presented in October at the meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics in Salt Lake City.

The official citation reads: “By mapping and then helping determine the sequences of the genomes of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans and the human, Dr. Waterston played a pivotal role in the Human Genome Project. He conceptualized and executed a broad variety of large-scale genomic investigations that made the fruits of genomic sequences immediately useful to all biological scientists. His vigorous and instrumental advocacy of the importance of maintaining complete and free public access to genomic information has been critical for maximizing the use of such information to benefit humanity.”

Born in Detroit, Michigan in 1943, Robert Waterston graduated from Princeton University in 1965 with an engineering degree and received his M.D. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Chicago. He was one of the first to study the nematode roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans with Dr. Sydney Brenner in Cambridge, England. Waterston helped establish C. elegans as a powerful experimental organism. Later, working with Dr. John Sulston, he mapped and then determined the sequence of the C. elegans genome – the first time this feat was accomplished for a multicellular organism.

Waterston’s work on large-scale DNA sequencing was critical to the success of the Human Genome Project, where he was the central coordinator for the physical map that formed the framework for the enterprise. More recently, he has led efforts to determine the genome sequences of the nematode Caenorhabditis briggsae, the mouse, and the chimpanzee, as well as to finish the sequencing of the human genome and to define a high-resolution map of human genome variations. His influence and support were critical to the free release of sequence and map information through the Internet, allowing other scientists to easily access these fundamental data.

“Genes are responsible for heredity, and genomics is the study of all genes in an organism,” said Peter Gruber, chairman of the Foundation. “We are extremely pleased to honor the work of Dr. Robert Waterston. He has been an essential figure in the field of genomics.”

The Genetics Prize was established in 2001. Previous winners are Dr. Rudolf Jaenish (2001), a pioneer in using mice to study and develop treatments for human diseases; Dr. H. Robert Horvitz (2002), the Nobel laureate who led the way in discovering how specific genes cause the programmed death of cells; Dr. David Botstein (2003), an innovator in the use of genetics to understand biological functions; and the UW’s Dr. Mary-Claire King in 2004.

The Peter Gruber Foundation was founded in 1993 and established a record of charitable giving principally in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where it is located. In recent years the Foundation has expanded its focus to a series of international awards recognizing discoveries and achievements that produce “fundamental shifts in human knowledge and culture.” In addition to the Genetics Prize, the Foundation presents awards in cosmology, neuroscience, justice and women’s rights. Further information is available at http://www.petergruberfoundation.org.