Geneticist Barbara Meyer Honored with 2018 E.B. Wilson Medal

Barbara Meyer
Barbara Meyer
Barbara Meyer

ASCB’s highest scientific honor—the E.B. Wilson Medal—goes to Barbara Meyer for 2018. The award recognizes cell biologists who have made far-reaching contributions throughout their lifetime. Meyer is a professor of genetics, genomics, and development at the University of California, Berkeley, and an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. She was previously the head of the Genetics Division at the University of California, Berkeley. Prior to her Berkeley appointment, she was a tenured professor in the Department of Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Using the model organism Caenorhabditis elegans, Meyer’s team explores the epigenetic mechanisms that transmit information through cell division; the genetic and molecular mechanisms of cell-fate determination; the mechanisms that drive chromosomes into the right structure to achieve proper gene expression and faithful segregation, hence genome stability; and the control of recombination during sperm and egg formation.

“Barbara’s contribution stands far apart because it is the product of a sustained brilliance….”

In his nomination letter, David C. Page, director of the Whitehead Institute wrote, “While numerous accomplished and lauded cell biologists have made significant contributions to the collective understanding of dosage compensation and sex determination via chromosome counting during the past three decades, Barbara’s contribution stands far apart because it is the product of a sustained brilliance, an insatiable curiosity, uncompromising rigor and scholarship, and clarity of thought and expression… [Barbara] has had an unparalleled ability to see through to the heart of the matter, and to probe with such insight and persistence that her work has not only yielded a deep understanding of the target topics (dosage compensation, for example) but also shed stunning new light on adjacent fields and topics like higher-order chromatin structure, condensins, and histone modification, to name just a few.”

Cynthia Kenyon, professor emerita at the University of California, San Francisco, and Vice President of Aging Research at Calico wrote of Meyer’s fundamental contributions to the understanding of global gene regulation mechanism. “I am particularly impressed by Barbara’s recent X-chromosome topological analysis, which yielded important information about the mechanism by which condensin complexes can bring chromosomal transcription levels down by half during interphase,” wrote Kenyon in her nomination letter. (Meyer’s lab carried out this study in collaboration with Job Dekker, University of Massachusetts Medical School, who performed the computational analysis.) “Barbara used chromosome conformation capture (3C) techniques to compare X chromosome structure and gene expression with that of an autosome. The results were beautiful and amazing: She showed that the DCC acts via rex sites to impose TAD-domain structures [topologically-associating domains] specifically on X chromosomes, and specifically in XX animals. In other words, condensin complexes can act as structural elements to remodel chromatin and reduce gene expression by half. This is the first time that a known molecular trigger and known DNA target sequences [validated in this study using CRISPR] have been shown to mediate such a profound effect on TAD structure in higher eukaryotes. This study now paves the way for deeper mechanistic studies.”

“This is the first time that a known molecular trigger and known DNA target sequences…have been shown to mediate such a profound effect on TAD structure in higher eukaryotes.”

Meyer earned her PhD at Harvard University with mentor Mark Ptashne and conducted her postdoctoral research as a Helen Hay Whitney Foundation Fellow with Sydney Brenner in the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK.

She will be awarded with the E.B. Wilson Medal on Tuesday, December 11, at 3:15 pm at the 2018 ASCB|EMBO Meeting in San Diego, where she will also present a talk on her work.

About the Author:

Mary Spiro is ASCB's Strategic Communications Manager.