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American Society for Microbiology Prize Goes to DeRisi

By Jeff Norris

You can’t ask a brewer’s yeast cell how it feels, or even how to make beer, but you can interrogate its gene activity. Thanks to pioneering work on microarray technologies by Joseph DeRisi, PhD, and colleagues, organisms from the viral to the human are providing valuable information about their genetic uniqueness, and about changes in gene activity in response to disease or changes in the environment. The arrays are basically many thousands of lab tests arrayed on a little chip.

Joe DeRisi

DeRisi and UCSF colleague Don Ganem, MD, are well known in science circles for their work on the ViroChip, a microarray that the pair continually updates so that it can be used to detect every known virus and to help researchers identify and describe unknown viruses. DeRisi also leads pioneering research on the malaria parasite. Less well known are his other endeavors, which includes research to monitor for early signs of disease outbreaks by tracking DNA from pathogens in sewage effluent, among many other projects. In honor of the still-young scientist’s fast-track career, the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) has awarded DeRisi its “oldest and most prestigious” prize, the Eli Lilly and Company Research Award. This award recognizes fundamental research of unusual merit in microbiology or immunology by an individual under age 45. As the 2009 recipient of the prize, DeRisi, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and professor in the UCSF Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, is being honored for his work to advance the basic technology and informatics for DNA microarrays and for his use of these tools to investigate basic biological regulatory mechanisms. DeRisi began his seminal work as a graduate student at Stanford University, and he has been a leader in the development and application of microarrays ever since. The ASM announcement of the award specifically cited DeRisi’s work in identifying and describing changes in yeast gene activation, or expression, during fermentation. In addition, the ASM recognized DeRisi’s malaria research, including development of the technology used to grow and study the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum, at key life stages, and his work to sort out changes associated with the complicated life cycle of the parasite. “He pioneered the design, construction, and use of a chemostat-like bioreactor that allows large-scale growth of synchronized cultures of Plasmodium falciparum merozooites in human blood,” the ASM announcement noted. “With this system, he completed a comprehensive array-based analysis of periodic gene expression by the parasite as it undergoes its remarkably synchronized life cycle. The work shows the temporal progression of classes of parasite gene expression and suggests that a simple network of transcription factors may underlie it. Published by PLOS Biology, it is one of the most significant discoveries in basic malaria research in the past decade.” The Eli Lilly and Company Research Award will be presented during the 109th General Meeting of the ASM, May 17-21, 2009, in Philadelphia.

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