The 2018 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award honors two scientists for discoveries that have elucidated how gene expression is influenced by chemical modification of histones, the proteins that package DNA within chromosomes. This prestigious award, often a prelude to the NobelPrize, was announced on September 11, 2018. Through tour-de-force genetic studies in yeast, Michael Grunstein (University of California, Los Angeles) demonstrated that histones dramatically influence gene activity within living cells and laid the groundwork for understanding the pivotal role of particular amino acids in this process. C. David Allis (Rockefeller University) uncovered an enzyme that attaches a specific chemical group to a particular amino acid in histones, and this histone-modifying enzyme turned out to be an established gene co-activator whose biochemical capabilities had eluded researchers. Grunstein and Allis unveiled a previously hidden layer of gene control and broke open a new field. In the late 1800s, Albrecht Kossel discovered proteins called histones in goose blood cells. These abundant proteins, he showed, associate with nucleic acid to form a conglomerate called chromatin. Until the 1940s, many scientists thought that histones, not DNA, constituted the inherited material in eukaryotes, organisms whose cells contain nuclei. By the 1960s, however, DNA had stolen the genetic-code limelight. Still, histones were plentiful and their partnership with the all-important genes intrigued investigators. Perhaps, evidence suggested, the proteins stifle the production of RNA from DNA, a process called transcription. In this view, stripping histones from eukaryotic DNA would allow the molecular apparatus that synthesizes RNA to adhere to its template and do its job.
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