Charles Yanofsky to receive the National Medal of Science at White House ceremony March 14


Charles Yanofsky

The first biology class Marc Feldman ever took was a graduate course on gene action taught by Charles Yanofsky at Stanford in 1967. "It still remains the best course that I've ever had in my life," recalled Feldman, who eventually joined Yanofsky on the biological sciences faculty. "When he gives a talk about his research now, it has that same clarity and irrefutable logic that he used when he was teaching me some 40 years ago."

Last week, Yanofsky was recognized for his long career as a pioneering researcher and mentor when he was named one of eight recipients of the 2003 National Medal of Science, the country's highest scientific honor. President Bush will present the medals at a White House ceremony on March 14.

"It's always wonderful to be appreciated," said Yanofsky, 79, the Morris Herzstein Professor of Biology, Emeritus. "It's not what we do research for, but nevertheless, it's nice when it happens, and everyone else can enjoy it, too—my friends, family and colleagues."

Yanofsky's medal brings the number awarded to scholars at Stanford, including the Hoover Institution, to 31.

Established by Congress in 1959, the National Medal of Science honors individuals for groundbreaking scientific research that has led to a better understanding of the world. The National Science Foundation administers the medals.

A member of Stanford's Department of Biological Sciences faculty since 1958, Yanofsky was recognized as one of the most important molecular biologists of the 20th century. His major contributions include establishing the "one gene, one protein" relationship; demonstrating the RNA-based regulation of gene expression; and his early discovery of colinearity, the linear relationship between the structures of genes and their protein products, considered an essential element in revealing the details of the genetic code.

His subsequent experiments on the regulation of gene expression led to the discovery of transcriptional attenuation, a process that enables the gene regulatory machinery to fine-tune its response to subtle environmental cues. That work also revealed how alterations in RNA structure allow RNA to serve as a regulatory molecule in both bacterial and animal cells.

"Everything the body does, or that an organism is capable of doing, is controlled by the genes that specify a certain set of proteins or enzymes," said Robert D. Simoni, professor of biological sciences. "Charley has studied and made the most fundamental observations about how the expression of those genes is controlled to produce certain proteins when they're needed and to make sure other proteins are not made when they're not needed.

"He helped determine what the genetic code was—one of the great breakthroughs in science in the last 75 years. He helped determine that the arrangement of nucleotides in DNA was a linear relationship to the linear arrangement of amino acids, the subunits that comprise proteins—again, a fundamental observation. He's also been a wonderful colleague, scientist, friend and mentor to the entire department."

During his 47-year career at Stanford, Yanofsky has mentored several generations of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, dozens of whom have become leading researchers in academia and the biotechnology industry.

Generosity of spiritBorn in New York City in 1925, Yanofsky was one of the early graduates of the Bronx High School of Science. In 1942, he entered the City College of New York for an education interrupted by service in the Army in World War II, including active combat in the Battle of the Bulge. With a bachelor's degree in biochemistry and an interest in genetics, he went on to Yale University in 1948, earning master's and doctoral degrees in microbiology.

After postdoctoral work at Yale and a faculty position at Western Reserve University Medical School in Cleveland, Yanofsky was persuaded to join the Biological Sciences Department at Stanford. He had been inspired as an undergraduate by the "one gene, one protein" hypothesis of former Stanford biologists George Beadle and Edward Tatum. The two future Nobel laureates had left Stanford by the time Yanofsky arrived, but he inherited Tatum's laboratory, including his hand-blown glassware.

Yanofsky began his work on colinearity when he arrived at Stanford in 1958. Six years later, he and his colleagues conducted a seminal experiment that finally proved the principle that each gene does contain the code for a specific protein.

Yanofsky continues to study the genes of the bacteria Escherichia coli and Bacillus subtilis, and a mold, Neurospora crassa, looking for basic information essential to understanding gene expression in all living things. In 2001, he and his colleagues discovered a unique protein, called anti-TRAP, which regulates production of the amino acid, tryptophan, in B. subtilis. Writing in the journal Science, Yanofsky noted that anti-TRAP could turn out to be an evolutionary ancestor of disease-fighting antibodies in humans.

"Charley Yanofsky was one of the key reasons I decided to come to Stanford," said Sharon Long, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences and a professor of biological sciences. "Charley has helped set the tone for the kind of department this is—one that is very supportive and very caring. That sort of generosity of spirit is something that has pervaded the research, the community and also the teaching. Thank you, Charley."

At a symposium celebrating his 70th birthday in April 1995, Yanofsky's colleagues and students recognized his fondness for breeding orchids by presenting him with the first blooming plants of a new orchid variety, bred and officially registered in his honor as the "Charley Yanofsky."

Yanofsky is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London. He has received the Albert Lasker Award in Basic Medical Research, the Genetics Society of America Medal and many other awards. He is past president of the American Society of Biological Chemists and of the Genetics Society of America, and was a Career Investigator of the American Heart Association. In 1980, he and other Stanford scientists founded DNAX, a Palo Alto-based research institute now owned by Schering-Plough Corp.

Yanofsky lives at Stanford with his wife, Edna. His first wife, Carol, died of breast cancer in 1990. He has three sons, all with careers in some aspect of science, and seven grandchildren.

Other National Medal of Science winners named last week are J. Michael Bishop, University of California-San Francisco; G. Brent Dalrymple, Oregon State University; Carl R. De Boor, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Riccardo Giacconi, Johns Hopkins University; R. Duncan Luce, UC-Irvine; John M. Prausnitz, UC-Berkeley; and Solomon H. Snyder, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Science writer Janet Basu contributed to this article.