US scientists win Dan David Prizes for evolution, ageing

The “present” award, examining “cinema and society” went to film giants Ethan and Joel Coen.

May 16, 2011 01:24
2 minute read.
Cohen Brothers at TAU awards ceremony

Cohen Brothers at TAU awards ceremony 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen)


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Three American scientists were among the five winners selected to receive this year’s Dan David Prizes at Tel Aviv University on Sunday for their innovative work involving evolution and a hormone that contributes to longevity, respectively.

The awards, which since 2002 have been honoring innovators in three “Time Dimension” categories of Past, Present and Future with $1 million each, are endowed by Israeli businessman’s Dan David Foundation, headquartered at Tel Aviv University.

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This year’s “past” award focused on evolution and went to Prof. Marcus Feldman of Stanford University, while the “future” award concentrated on ageing and went to Prof. Cynthia Kenyon of the University of California, San Francisco, and Prof. Gary Ruvkun of Harvard Medical School.

The “present” award, examining “cinema and society” went to film giants Ethan and Joel Coen. All of the laureates are able to personally use $900,000 of their winnings, and the remaining 10 percent must go to scholarship funds for students, Dan David explained at a press conference on Sunday evening.

“We are encompassing everything,” David said. “Every year, the board of the prize is focusing on certain fields – for the past, for the present, for the future.”

Among the winning scientists’ achievements have included Feldman’s origination of the quantitative theory of genetic modifiers of recombination, mutation and dispersal – which he has adapted in order to solve emergent social problems, including the currently dangerous phenomenon of the “son preference” in China, which he said stems back to the Confucius period.

“When the Chinese government instituted a fertility control policy in the 1980s, the “preference of having a son to continue the family name” prevailed, causing over a 25-year period the ratio of males to females born to increase to 120:100, according to Feldman.

“What we have done is to use evolution to predict what will happen to the demography of China if this continues,” he said. “And the terrible thing that will happen is that there will be a very big increase in the number of old people and a decrease in the fraction of working age people to pay for the old people to survive.”

Meanwhile, Kenyon and Ruvkun received their award for their joint research on the genetic regulation of ageing, in which they have targeted a hormone similar to human insulin that is instrumental in maintaining longevity, according to the prize committee.

All three professors had words of encouragement for young, burgeoning scientists interested in pursuing goals in their fields.

“You need to find something you have a passion for because it’s hard to keep going,” Kenyon said.

Her co-recipient, Ruvkun, encouraged taking on role models and collaborating with other scientists as a mechanism for advancement.

“It’s leapfrogging in a way,” he said. “It’s actually more of a coordination between labs and jumping between labs. It’s inspiring.”

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