Embargoed by Science for 2 p.m. EDT October 23, 2003

Study of Life’s Origins by UCSD Researcher
Wins Prestigious “Young Scientist” Prize

For his study of life’s origins, Lei Wang, Ph.D., a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Pharmacology at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine, has been named to receive the prestigious $25,000 Young Scientist Prize awarded by Amersham Biosciences and the journal, Science.

The prize will be awarded Monday, October 27, 2003 in ceremonies in New York City, and Science will publish the winning essay in its October 24 issue.

Now 31 years old, Wang was working at UC Berkeley (guided by Peter G. Schultz, now with The Scripps Research Institute), when he became fascinated with fundamental questions:

Why, for example, do all life forms use the same 20 amino acids to build proteins? Is life’s blueprint a genetic fossil, accidentally frozen before it could code for more than 20 amino acids? Or, is modern DNA an expanded version of its shorter, primordial blueprint?”

Wang, a native of Tonggu, China, ultimately developed a method for inserting an extra amino acid into a protein in live cells, in the same way that natural amino acids are incorporated. The result produces a living or “in vivo” means for studying the evolution of genetic code, and paves the way for probing life processes.

Wang’s former adviser, Peter Schulz, said Wang’s research sets the stage for highly specific genetic engineering, thus opening new research horizons. “His work will likely make possible the generation of proteins, and perhaps entire organisms, with novel properties not limited by the 20 common amino acids.”

“We were able to show, for the first time, how the genetic code could indeed be expanded by human power using nature’s technique,” said Wang. “In a way, our methods remove the constraints of nature, suggesting exciting opportunities for studying and engineering various biological functions.”

Using the bacterium E. coli as a host, Wang hijacked a new set of components including nucleic acids and enzymes. A “nonsense codon,” a trio of bases that codes for nothing, was hijacked to serve as the trigger, or signal. These new building blocks, when added into the cell machinery, selectively insert a new amino acid into proteins in response to the signal. The research resulted in an article in the April 20, 2001 issue of the journal Science, describing the method and the first bug with an expanded genetic code. In follow-up work by other researchers, the system and strategy were transplanted from the bacterium into mammalian cells and yeast.

Another award recently presented to Wang was an honorable mention in the Prize for Young Chemists competition of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, for his Ph.D. thesis work entitled “Expanding the Genetic Code of Escherichia coli.” *

Amersham Biosciences and Science established the Young Scientist Prize in 1995 to support fundamental discoveries in the field of molecular biology.

“Supporting scientists at the beginning of their careers is crucial for continued scientific progress,” noted Science’s executive editor, Monica M. Bradford.

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* For information on the IUPAC prize to Wang: http://www.iupac.org/news/prize/2003/wang.html

See the October 24, 2003 issue of Science for a copy of his essay, or contact Ginger Pinholster, 202-326-6421, gpinhols@aaas.org

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