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Two Stanford biologists win MacArthur Prize

STANFORD -- Two Stanford University scientists have won prestigious MacArthur fellowships, which give them each more than $50,000 a year for the next five years.

The winners, both members of Stanford's Department of Biological Sciences, are Sharon Long, 41, and Stephen Schneider, 47.

Long is a biologist whose exploration of the relationship between bacteria and legumes has far-reaching implications for new agricultural genetic technologies. She has been at Stanford since 1981.

Schneider is a climatologist who has been a prime mover in bringing the human consequences of climate change before the public. A visiting professor at Stanford this year while on leave from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., Schneider will join the university's faculty on a permanent basis in September.

Schneider and Long are the thirteenth and fourteenth professors at Stanford to win the award.

The MacArthur Fellowships range from $150,000 to $375,000 over five years, depending on the age of the recipient. The winners are chosen from nominations made by a secret committee set up by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The award has no strings attached and recipients can use the money as they wish.

Long said she hasn't decided how she will use the money, but most likely will apply it to training herself in some "new technologies I need to know in order to be doing exciting things five to 10 years from now."

"The challenge is to use it for something that would really make a difference," she said. "You can have larger research grants that you can't do as much with because they are encumbered to spend on specific things. With a MacArthur fellowship, you can try something risky.

"Training myself in new technologies is the best investment I could make."

Long's molecular genetics laboratory is one of a handful in the world using a new scientific model - a remarkable symbiosis between a bacterium and the roots of a plant - to answer fundamental questions about the way genes control growth and change in bacterial and plant cells. Her current studies involve how alfalfa communicates and cooperates with the bacterium Rhizobium meliloti. The bacterium turns nitrogen into ammonia - the form of nitrogen plants need to grow. In return, alfalfa feeds the bacterium with sugars the plant makes through photosynthesis.

Long and her students were the first to identify a molecular role for luteolin, one of a family of yellow dyes that is alfalfa's chemical signal. They cloned the nodulation genes that the Rhizobium bacterium expresses in response to the plant signal and identified a controller gene for the whole process. Now, they are looking for the receptors within the plant cell that trigger the response.

She and her colleagues were granted two patents recently that someday may be used by genetic engineers to create new pesticides and fertilizers that would be produced only in contact with the roots of targeted plants. Farmers could use such substances knowing that they would not encourage weeds or induce resistance to pests that don't directly threaten the plant.

Schneider said he would use his money essentially to set up his lab at Stanford. Schneider is technically on leave from the National Center for Atmospheric Research and will be leaving all his grants there. Consequently, he will use the MacArthur money to open his office and "hire people who will make my life easier."

"I will be starting from scratch," he said.

Schneider will be spending most of the summer at the national center, but also will go on a summer expedition to the North Pole to set out scientific buoys that will send their position and readings to satellites as part of an international experiment on the environment.

Although basically a climatologist, Schneider has been spending increasing time on environmental issues, particularly such things as the greenhouse effect. He is particularly concentrating on the effects of global warming on wildlife and ecosystems.

He is collaborating with Terry Root at the University of Michigan in studying how the northern ranges of birds would change as the climate warms. Although birds can move and follow the climate, he said, different species will move at different rates, ripping apart whole communities of species - birds, insects and trees - that normally associate together.

"What I see happening in the next 100 years is a very rapid tearing apart of communities at unprecedentedly fast rates," he said. Ecosystems that evolved over thousands of years are being disturbed at 50 times the natural rate of climate change, he said.

To approach global change, he said, "one has to start out not only with physics and chemistry and biology, but also with social science, economics and demography."

The real problems, he said, pose a fundamental question: "Can we manage ourselves into the next millennium if our organizations are not at the same scale as the problem?"


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