Marc Tessier-Lavigne receives Gruber Neuroscience Prize

Tessier-Lavigne shares the prize with two other neuroscientists. They are being recognized for discoveries revealing the molecular mechanisms that guide axon development in neural circuits.

Stanford University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne has been awarded the 2020 Gruber Neuroscience Prize for his contributions to research on molecular mechanisms that control the growth of axons – the long, winding projection on a nerve cell, or neuron, that directs electrical impulses away from the body of the cell – to wire up the nervous system during embryonic development. The award recognizes Tessier-Lavigne’s groundbreaking work on axon guidance processes in mammals and their role in spinal cord development. His research has helped reveal molecular mechanisms that are critical to axon development throughout the animal kingdom.

Marc Tessier-Lavigne

Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Tessier-Lavigne, who is the Bing Presidential Professor at Stanford, shares the award with Friedrich Bonhoeffer, emeritus director of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany, and Corey Goodman, a founding partner of venBio Partners in San Francisco, California. The trio led in identifying multiple guidance mechanisms, including co-discovering four major families of axon guidance cues – Netrins, Slits, Semaphorins and Ephrins – that help direct neural circuit development. These guidance cues are found in many, distantly related species.

“It is a great honor to be awarded the Gruber Neuroscience Prize together with Dr. Goodman and Dr. Bonhoeffer, whose parallel insights into axon guidance have greatly informed and enriched our own work,” said Tessier-Lavigne, who is also professor of biology in the School of Humanities and Sciences. “I’m deeply gratified, and I’m thankful to the colleagues who have worked alongside me.”

“All three of these neuroscientists were instrumental in breaking open the field of axon guidance,” said Dr. Susan Amara, NIMH Scientific Director and chair of the Selection Advisory Board to the Prize in the award press release. “Their discoveries have fundamentally changed our understanding of how neural circuits are formed and have led to greater insights into a wide range of neurological disorders and injuries.”

“Taken together, the work of these three scientists comprises one of the greatest success stories in developmental neuroscience,” added Joshua Sanes, professor of molecular and cellular biology and director of the Center for Brain Science, Harvard University and member of the Selection Advisory Board.

The prize, which includes a $500,000 award, will be presented to the honorees on Oct. 25 at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. Tessier-Lavigne is donating his third of the prize to the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute and the Neurosciences graduate program at Stanford to support graduate students who are underrepresented in the field of neurosciences.

Tessier-Lavigne received undergraduate degrees in physics from McGill University and in philosophy and physiology from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He earned a PhD in physiology from University College London, where he performed research on neural circuits in the retina.

Tessier-Lavigne began his work on axon guidance while conducting postdoctoral research at Columbia University. It was there that he and his colleagues discovered that the development of commissural neurons – neurons whose axons cross to the opposite side of the spinal cord – is guided by a chemical attractant. When he set up his first lab at the University of California, San Francisco, Tessier-Lavigne was determined to identify this attractant factor.

“I thought it was the single most important and exciting thing I could do,” said Tessier-Lavigne in an interview with The Gruber Foundation. “At that point, not a single axon guidance cue had been identified in any organism.”

After an intense three-year search for the attractant, Tessier-Lavigne and colleagues published a landmark paper describing Netrins – from the Sanskrit netr, meaning “one who guides.” He went on to purify Slit proteins, a second major axon guidance cue family. Netrins and Slits were also discovered in very distantly related species – nematodes and fruit flies – showing that these guidance mechanisms are common throughout the animal kingdom.

The Gruber Neuroscience Prize also recognizes Tessier-Lavigne’s subsequent work on different axon guidance cues and their roles in spinal cord development, as well as the identification of other guidance molecules for other axon populations, including sensory and motor axons. Tessier-Lavigne has often co-published with his fellow Gruber Neuroscience Prize recipient, Goodman, to investigate the commonalities between their research subjects – Tessier-Lavigne’s work has focused on mammals and Goodman’s has focused on insects.

Tessier-Lavigne’s contributions have been recognized through numerous prizes and honors, including his election as a Member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, and as a Fellow of the Royal Society, the Royal Society of Canada, the Academy of Medical Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He, Bonhoeffer and Goodman were also previously awarded the Fondation IPSEN Prize for Neuronal Plasticity for their work on axon guidance.

To read all stories about Stanford science, subscribe to the biweekly Stanford Science Digest.