2002 ASCB Annual Meeting Press Book - page 2

The ‘Founding
Fathers’ of Ubiquitin
Receive ASCB’s Top
Scientific Medal
It was named ubiquitin because the
tiny protein is found in all organisms,
even if its purpose was a mystery. It took
the separate but complementary discov-
eries of researchers Avram Hershko and
Alexander Varshavsky to reveal that this
ubiquitous molecule is critical to nearly
every significant activity in the cell.
Ubiquitin is at the center one of the hot-
test fields in medical research, as scien-
tists strive to understand ubiquitin’s role
in many human diseases, including can-
cer and neurodegenerative disorders.
For their discovery of the ubiquitin
system and its crucial functions, the
American Society for Cell Biology will
present the E.B. Wilson Medal, the
Society’s highest scientific honor, to
Varshavsky and Hershko, at 6 p.m. Sun-
day in Room 103 of the Moscone Con-
vention Center. Both will speak after the
medal ceremony.
Hershko, 64, is Distinguished Pro-
fessor of Medicine at the Technion-Is-
rael Institute of Technology, in Haifa,
Israel. Varshavsky, 55, is the Smits Pro-
fessor of Cell Biology at the California
Institute of Technology, in Pasadena.
Tiny but powerful, ubiquitin keeps
order in the cell by tagging unnecessary
proteins for destruction. It was Hershko
who first uncovered ubiquitin’s role in
protein degradation and delineated the
ubiquitin conjugation pathway by which
a healthy cell regulates the degradation
of its proteins. In the meantime,
Varshavsky who was then at MIT was
studying ubiquitin conjugates in chro-
mosomes. With Daniel Finley and Aaron
Ciechanover, Varshavsky demonstrated
that ubiquitin was essential for protein
degradation in living cells essential for
cell growth and division. Any substance
Avram Hershko
Alexander Varshavsky
: Avram Hershko of Technion-
Israel and Alexander Varshavsky of
: The “fathers” of ubiquitin
receive the E.B. Wilson Medal
: Sunday, Dec. 15, 6 PM
: Room 103, Moscone
Convention Center
which can regulate cell division has
enormous potential in medicine.
“The complementary discoveries
by the laboratories of Hershko and
Varshavsky transformed the realm of in-
tracellular protein degradation from a
relative backwater of cell biology into a
broad and dynamic subject of great im-
portance,” wrote Caltech biologist and
ASCB member Seymour Benzer, in his
nomination of Hershko and Varshavsky
for the ASCB’s E.B. Wilson Medal. “At
the present time, ubiquitin studies are
one of the major arenas in modern biol-
ogy, the point of convergence of many
disparate disciplines. It is rare in the his-
tory of science that a huge, complex, and
singularly important field is founded in
the main by just two laboratories.”
The scientific story of ubiquitin is
nearly as interesting as the personal his-
tories of its discoverers. Both medallists
were refugees. Hershko was born in
Hungary in 1937. His father was sent to
one concentration camp, Avram and his
mother to another. Amazingly, father,
mother and son were reunited after the
war. The family emigrated to Israel when
Avramwas 13. Hershko earned his medi-
cal degree at the Hebrew University-
Hadassah Medical School and served as
a doctor in the Israeli Defense Forces
before returning to Hebrew University
to earn his Ph.D. in 1969. He worked as
a postdoctoral fellow with Gordon
Tompkins at the University of Califor-
nia, San Francisco and returned to Is-
rael to join the faculty of Technion in
Varshavsky was born in Moscow in
1946, earning his B.S. in Chemistry at
Moscow University in 1970 and his
Ph.D. in Biochemistry at Moscow’s In-
stitute of Molecular Biology in 1973. He
managed to escape from the Soviet Union
in 1977 by attending a scientific meet-
ing in Finland, from which he made his
way via Sweden to the American Consu-
late in Frankfurt. Having briefly met the
American Nobel Laureate David Balti-
more years before, Varshavsky was able
to contact Baltimore, who helped
Varshavsky procure a visa to the U.S. In
America, Varshavsky became a full pro-
fessor at MIT by 1986. He moved to
Caltech in 1992.
The Society’s E.B. Wilson Medal,
named for an early 20th century pioneer
of American biology who advocated the
chromosomal theory of inheritance, is
awarded by scientific peers to those
whose careers have made highly signifi-
cant contributions to cell biology.
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