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Vol. LVII, No. 14
July 15, 2005

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NIH Honors Felsenfeld, 'Quintessential NIH Scientist'

On the front page...

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.


Dr. Gary Felsenfeld (l) poses with Dr. Michael Grunstein at the event.  
"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."

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 section, LMB.

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 tribute.  

"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 replication.

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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