Six Washington University scientists elected AAAS Fellows

Six researchers from Washington University in St. Louis have been named fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest general scientific society. AAAS awards the rank of fellow—the highest honor it confers—to researchers who have made scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science.

New fellows from the School of Medicine are Elliot L. Elson, Ph.D., Alumni Endowed Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics; Timothy M. Lohman, Ph.D., Marvin A. Brennecke Professor of Biological Chemistry and professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics; Jane E. Phillips-Conroy, Ph.D., professor of anatomy and neurobiology and also professor of anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences; and Herbert W. Virgin, M.D., Ph.D., professor of pathology and immunology and of molecular microbiology. From the College of Arts and Sciences, the newly elected fellows are Gayle J. Fritz, Ph.D., professor of anthropology and Eric J. Richards, Ph.D., associate professor of biology.

Elson was honored by AAAS for developing theoretical and experimental approaches to the use of novel fluorescent methods, for studying viscoelastic properties of cells, and for the investigation of tissue mechanics.

Elson studies the molecular structures that determine the characteristics of the body’s tissues. A key area of his research involves analysis of the mechanical properties and functions of the cytoskeleton, the collection of filaments and tubules that maintain the shape of individual cells. Elson has engineered experimental tissue equivalents used to study the functions of specific cytoskeletal proteins. He investigates the mechanisms by which the cellular forces of contraction are regulated, how tissues undergo remodeling and the effects of applied forces on tissue organization and mechanical characteristics.

Fritz was honored by AAAS for her studies on the domestication of plants by Native North Americans and the spread of maize (corn) in agricultural systems.

Fritz explores the interrelationships of plants and people through history by excavating and analyzing archaeological plant remains. Looking at cultural, biological and ecological aspects, she is especially concerned with the processes leading to the agricultural development in North America. Fritz studies the archeological sites of early agricultural people in North America, assessing the role of particular plants in the economies of ancient desert farmers in the Southwest as well as mixed farmer-foragers in the Eastern Woodlands. She is interested in studying the change in subsistence across North America during many different time periods. Because of Washington University’s proximity to Cahokia and other archaeological sites in western Illinois, Fritz has been drawn into American Bottom archaeology, and she has been modeling the transition to farming made by sedentary fisher-gatherer-hunters in the Lower Mississippi Valley.

Lohman was honored by AAAS for fundamental studies of the thermodynamics and kinetic mechanisms of interaction between protein and DNA, particularly SSB and helicase-unwinding of the DNA double helix.

Lohman investigates how double-stranded, helical DNA becomes unwound during DNA replication, recombination, and repair. As cells divide, they must unwind the double helix of DNA in order for the two strands to be replicated. Unwinding also must occur before damage from chemicals or irradiation can be repaired. The process is catalyzed by enzymes called helicases, which are present in all cells and central to all aspects of DNA metabolism. Lohman investigates how these motor proteins are assembled and how they use ATP, the energy supply of cells, to unwind the DNA while also moving along the DNA filament. He also studies the interactions of DNA with SSB and RPA proteins, which facilitate the unwinding of DNA.

Phillips-Conroy was honored by AAAS for distinguished contributions to the study of primate social behavior and species diversity, especially in wild anubis, hamadryas and hybrid baboon populations in Africa.

Phillips-Conroy studies free-ranging primates, focusing on how behavioral, demographic and ecological variables influence population structure. Long-term field studies of baboons in Ethiopia and Tanzania, involving capture and biological sampling of free-ranging animals, have allowed Phillips-Conroy to examine a broad range of biological features of baboons and to consider these features in their ecological and behavioral contexts. Her research also addresses more general questions of population distribution, adaptation and the nature of variation within the baboon genus as a whole. She also has conducted field research in Guyana, Kenya and most recently, Zambia.

Richards was honored by AAAS for his fundamental studies of cytosine methylation and the role of DNA methylation on the epigenetic stability of the eukaryotic genome.

Richards’ research focuses on a modification of certain units of DNA; this modification—methylation of cytosine units, one of the four chemical subunits of DNA—functions to regulate gene expression, helping to silence genes that are not used. Without proper DNA methylation, higher organisms from plants to humans have a host of developmental problems, from dwarfing in plants to tumor development in humans. Biomedical researchers have noted that in breast and colon cancers, among others, inappropriate DNA methylation can inactivate tumor suppressor genes that keep cancer at bay. Richards has identified a novel gene, DDM1, required for maintenance of DNA methylation.

Virgin was honored by AAAS for his distinguished and numerous contributions to the understanding of viral pathogenesis, latency, immunity and immune evasion of gamma herpes viruses and for identification of new pathogens.

Virgin studies issues at the interface between virology and immunology, working from the hypothesis that viruses manipulate the immune response as the immune response attempts to eradicate the virus. Analysis of these issues is key to understanding chronic viral diseases. His research makes use of mouse models for important human diseases: by developing mice and viruses with specific genes inactivated, Virgin directly studies how the immune system protects against infection, how viral genes are related to disease, and how viruses survive in the face of immunity. In addition he has devoted significant effort to discovering new viruses, an effort rewarded by the discovery of the first norovirus to infect small animals and subsequent development of the first ever culture system for a norovirus. Noroviruses, commonly know as the “cruise ship” viruses, cause the majority of epidemic gastroenteritis worldwide, and these discoveries open up chances to treat or prevent an important human disease.

The full-time and volunteer faculty of Washington University School of Medicine are the physicians and surgeons of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked second in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.