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NIH is filled with successful scientists, but "successful" does
not even begin to describe the life and career of Dr. Gary Felsenfeld,
chief of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, NIDDK.
Recently, NIDDK's Division of Intramural Research and the Foundation
for Advanced Education in the Sciences held a tribute to Felsenfeld's
career titled, "DNA and Its Complexes." Friends, colleagues and
admirers honored the man and his science in a day filled with scientific
presentations focused on research involving DNA-protein interactions
relating to transcription.
"He is an extraordinary scientist who, in a career spanning over
four decades, has made one monumental discovery after another," said
Dr. Allen Spiegel, NIDDK director. "I'm impressed not only by the
elegance of his work, but also by the absolutely undiminished enthusiasm
he takes in unraveling nature's secrets."
|Dr. Gary Felsenfeld (l) poses with Dr. Michael
Grunstein at the event.
Extraordinary is a term often used to describe Felsenfeld, who
joined the LMB in 1961 to work on protein-nucleic acid interactions.
He came from the California Institute of Technology, where he had
studied physical chemistry as a graduate student under Dr. Linus
Pauling, and from the University of Pittsburgh, where he spent
2 years as an assistant professor of biophysics. In between, he
spent 2 years in the Laboratory of Neurochemistry at the National
Institute of Mental Health where he joined Dr. Alexander Rich,
now professor of biophysics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
and Dr. David Davies, who became chief of the molecular structure
It was at NIMH that Felsenfeld, along with Rich and Davies, performed
their famous RNA triplex experiments. Together they discovered
the first three-stranded helical nucleic acid molecule, titled
the F.D.R. triplex for Felsenfeld, Davies and Rich. This discovery
revealed the diversity of structures that nucleic acids can form.
"You have to be very lucky to start your career with something
like that," said Felsenfeld. "It keeps you going through the slower
days that always follow."
|Paying tribute to Felsenfeld were visiting
scientists (from l) Dr. Tom Maniatis, Dr. Richard Axel and
Dr. Keith Yamamoto.
But Felsenfeld did not have many slow days after that pivotal
discovery. He built upon those findings with studies of DNA and
RNA structure and in his later research on chromatin, first at
Pittsburgh and then at NIH in the newly formed LMB, which he joined
at the urging of then chief, Dr. Gordon Tompkins.
In addition to Tompkins and Felsenfeld, the LMB (which was then
part of the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases,
the NIDDK predecessor) included other young and promising scientists
such as Davies, Dr. Martin Gellert, Dr. Todd Miles, Dr. Phillip
Ross, Dr. Bruce Ames and Dr. Harvey Itano. Since then, the LMB
has become one of the greatest success stories in the history of
the NIH intramural program. Including past and current staff and
postdoctoral students, more than 15 alumni of the LMB have been
elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
|Dr. Eric Davidson offers remarks at the
"Gary has the ability to do so much with experimental elegance," said
Nobel laureate Dr. Richard Axel. "Technical grace alone is important,
but inadequate. So to this Gary adds an ability to add connections
that are simply not apparent to others." Axel was a postdoc with
Felsenfeld in the LMB for 2 years, from 1970 to 1972.
"The history of [Felsenfeld's] career is the history of the field
of transcription science," added Davies.
Much of the work Felsenfeld has done since returning to NIH has
focused on the regulation of gene expression, and particularly
on the ways in which chromatin structure serves to regulate gene
activity in eukaryotes. Chromatin is the complex of proteins, predominantly
histones, and DNA, which contain genetic material, packaged inside
the nuclei of eukaryotic cells. Chromatin structure packages the
large volume of DNA into the small space of the nucleus and also
regulates the action of DNA during gene transcription and cell
According to Dr. Michael Gottesman, NIH deputy director for intramural
research, in closing remarks at the tribute, "If [Felsenfeld had]
only done brilliant experiments on complex problems, it would have
been enough." But in addition to his scientific accomplishments,
Felsenfeld is also a well-respected and well-loved teacher and
mentor, Gottesman said.
"Gary is an inspiration and an unbelievable role model, who exemplifies
the best of our chromatin field and the best of NIH science," said
Dr. Carl Wu, chief of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, NCI. "Gary's
presence on campus has been a magnet, not only for the incredible
list of research fellows who've come to his lab, but also for those
of us who wanted to come to work at NIH. I'm one of those who was
drawn here because Gary was here."
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