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July 19, 2007

Maynard Olson receives 2007 Gruber Prize for Genetics

Dr. Maynard Olson, UW professor of genome sciences and medicine in the Division of Medical Genetics, has received the 2007 Gruber Prize for Genetics. Olson, one of the main architects of the Human Genome Project, created a method to break the yeast genome into manageable pieces for analysis. His pioneering work paved the way for analysis of the entire human genome.

UW faculty members have now been recognized with the Gruber Prize for Genetics in three of the past four years. Dr. Robert Waterston, professor and chair of genome sciences, received the prize in 2005, and Dr. Mary-Claire King, the American Cancer Society professor of genome sciences, in 2004.

The award was created several years ago by the Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, a philanthropic group headquartered in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The foundation promotes social justice, educational excellence and scientific achievement. It offers annual prizes in genetics, neuroscience, cosmology, women’s rights, and justice; each includes an unrestricted cash award of $500,000. The group has also partnered with other scientific organizations to offer fellowships for outstanding young scientists in genetics, neuroscience, and cosmology.

Olson received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology, and his Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from Stanford. He served on the faculty at Dartmouth College for five years before coming to the UW as a visiting scholar and research associate, from 1974 to 1979, working with Benjamin Hall in what was then the Department of Genetics. He joined the faculty of Washington University in St. Louis, and later became an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Olson returned to the UW in 1992, joining the Department of Molecular Biotechnology, the forerunner of today’s Department of Genome Sciences.

Olson’s current work is focused on evolution at the genome level. One of his projects involves studying the evolution of pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bacterium that commonly infects cystic fibrosis patients. Olson and his colleagues are examining how the pseudomonas genome evolves over many years in the lungs of a cystic fibrosis patient. The work could shed light on the natural process of genome evolution, and could help scientists better understand how to treat chronic pseudomonas infections in people with cystic fibrosis.