Rössler Prize Awarded to Olivier Voinnet for RNAi Discoveries

This year’s Rössler Prize has been awarded to Dr. Olivier Voinnet (photo), Professor of RNA Biology in the Department of Biology, ETH Zurich. The Frenchman receives the CHF 200,000 research prize for his groundbreaking discoveries in the field of molecular and cell biology. In 1990, scientists introduced a gene known to stimulate the production of flower pigments into petunia flowers to enhance their color. However, the genetically modified plants turned almost white. The newly introduced genes not only failed to be expressed, but they also suppressed the naturally present one. This mysterious inactivation of genes, later found to rely on species of very small, non-coding RNA molecules, is now regarded as one of the most fundamental discoveries of modern biology. The function and applications of what are now known as small interfering RNAs, or siRNAs, have since become integral to biological research and applied medicine. However, many aspects of this new class of RNA molecules and their biological effects, collectively referred to as ‘RNA interference,’ or RNAi, remain unexplored. Dr. Voinnet, 41, worked on this group of molecules as a Ph.D. student and discovered how plants use RNAi to defend themselves against viral infection. Because the siRNAs originate from the virus itself, plants can use them specifically against the pathogen, in a sequence-specific manner. In 1997, Dr. Voinnet was able to demonstrate that RNAi can spread throughout the whole plant to confer immunity against the triggering viruses and that, as a counterdefense, viruses evolve proteins that suppress RNAi. A year later, researchers Dr. Andrew Fire and Dr. Craig Mellow discovered a similar mechanism in the nematode C. elegans, and they were awarded the Nobel Prize for this discovery in 2006. Over the last 15 years, Dr.
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