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How cell size matters

Research earns top prize for young scientists

American Association for the Advancement of Science

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IMAGE: This is Dr. Liron Bar-Peled, a postdoctoral fellow at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., and grand prize winner of this year's Science & SciLifeLab Prize for Young... view more

Credit: [Credit: AAAS/Science]

For his novel research into how mammalian cell size is influenced by its environment, Liron Bar-Peled has been named the 2014 Grand Prize winner of the Science & SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists. The prize awards early-career scientists and includes a grand-prize award of US$25,000, supported by Science for Life Laboratory (SciLifeLab) and the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, in collaboration with the journal Science, which is published by AAAS, the nonprofit international science society.

Mapping out a completely unannotated branch of a central signaling pathway fascinated Liron Bar-Peled, while he was a graduate student in David Sabatini's laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Bar-Peled tried to answer a fundamental question in the area of cell and developmental biology--how eukaryotic cell growth is regulated by the environment--in his grand-prize winning essay, "Size does matter," which will appear in the 5 December 2014 issue of Science.

In his essay, Bar-Peled describes how multicellular organisms rely on environmental cues to dictate cell size. "When nutrients are plentiful, cells engage key programs to increase their size and mass," he writes.

Cells sense a diverse array of environmental stimuli through a signaling pathway known as mTORC1, which functions as a master regulator of eukaryotic cell growth.

Bar-Peled explains how his team came to better understand how mTORC1 senses environmental stimuli. "We uncovered what amounted to be an extremely complex signal transduction pathway based at the lysosomal surface that is required to communicate the levels of one key nutrient, amino acids, to mTORC1," said Bar-Peled. "It turns out that several of the components of this pathway are mutated in human diseases, ranging from a primary immune disorder to glioblastoma and ovarian cancers."

By investigating this pathway, Bar-Peled and his colleagues hope to gain a better molecular understanding of these diseases and develop new ways to diagnose and treat them. "For example, we found, that cancer cell lines that are missing one particular amino acid sensing component, GATOR1, are hypersensitive to mTORC1 inhibitors," he explained. "This suggests that GATOR1 might be a useful biomarker to identify tumors in patients that might be sensitive to FDA-approved mTORC1 inhibitors."

Bar-Peled continues to work to identify amino acid sensor(s) and to understand how the mTORC1 signaling network is organized, as well as the function of this pathway in both normal and disease physiology, which are "the big questions right now," he said.

"I feel incredibly honored to receive the Science and SciLifeLab Prize as it awards the culmination of years of research," said Bar-Peled. "It not only recognizes my own studies, but also those of my mentors, whose own work built a foundation upon which I could ask these questions. This Prize also validates the fundamental importance of how basic biological research can inform about the origins of complex human disease."

Bar-Peled will receive the award for his research in the field of cell and developmental biology in Stockholm, Sweden, on Tuesday, 9 December, during an award ceremony and dinner at the Grand Hôtel in the Hall of Mirrors, which held the first Nobel Prize ceremony in 1901.

"Science is pleased to partner with SciLifeLab to recognize the most promising young researchers conducting ground-breaking life-science research of both fundamental and practical importance to our health and quality of life," said Marcia McNutt, editor-in-chief of Science. "These early career awards provide a big career boost to rising talent when they need it most."

Barbara Jasny, deputy editor of Science, echoed her sentiments. "They beautifully exemplify how scientific approaches and innovative methods can potentially help us all and our planet."

The Science & SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists is an annual prize aimed at rewarding young scientists at an early stage of their careers. The categories for this annual award are genomics and proteomics, cell and developmental biology, translational medicine, and the environment.

"This year's application round was signified by essays of very high quality, and we are excited to award the most outstanding of these young scientists," said Mathias Uhlén, the director for SciLifeLab and a key founder of the prize. "We look forward to welcoming them to the prize ceremony in Stockholm."

Currently, Bar-Peled is a postdoctoral fellow in Benjamin Cravatt's laboratory at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, where he is using advanced chemoproteomic techniques to investigate how the major anti-oxidant defense pathway, NRF2, regulates the proteome in response to oxidative stress. "NRF2 is found deregulated in a diverse set of human pathologies, and we hope that our current approach will not only increase our basic understanding of this pathway but may uncover therapeutic targets in NRF2-driven diseases," said Bar-Peled.

In the future, he plans to continue to investigate how the proteome responds to oxidative stress challenges in rapidly proliferating tumors as an independent investigator applying chemical methodologies to cell biological questions.

Applicants for the 2014 Science & SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists submitted a 1000-word essay that was judged by an independent editorial team organized by the journal Science. Their essays were judged on the quality of research and the applicants' ability to articulate how their work would contribute to the scientific field.

The 2014 award also recognizes the following category winners, whose essays will be published in the journal Science online at http://www.sciencemag.org/site/feature/data/prizes/scilifelab/. The winners receive US$3,000 and will be featured at http://www.sciencemag.org/site/feature/data/prizes/scilifelab/winning.xhtml.

After the embargo has lifted, follow #ScienceSciLifeLabPrize on Twitter @sciencemagazine @SciPak @SciLifeLab.

2014 Grand Prize Winner:

Liron Bar-Peled: Bar-Peled received his Bachelor of Science degree in biochemistry from the University of Georgia and his Ph.D. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied amino acid sensing in David Sabatini's lab. He is a recipient of the 2014 Weintraub Award for Graduate Research, the 2013 Gary Bokoch memorial award from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and the 2012 Abraham J. Siegel Fellowship Award from the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. He is currently investigating how cells respond to oxidative stress in the laboratory of Professor Benjamin Cravatt at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla. He is a Lallage Feazel Wall Fellow of the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation.

2014 Category Winners:

Chelsea Wood: For her essay on the topic of the environment, "Environmental change and the ecology of infectious disease." Wood is a disease ecologist interested in how parasites and pathogens respond to human impacts on the environment. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Dartmouth College, and her Ph.D. from Stanford University. She did postdoctoral research in Associate Professor Pieter Johnson's lab at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and is currently a Fellow in the Michigan Society of Fellows and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan. The research described in her essay suggests that the impacts of fishing on parasites are complex but predictable with an understanding of parasite natural history.

Simon Johnson: For his essay on the topic of translational medicine, "A Novel Target for Pharmacological Intervention in an Untreatable Human Disease." Johnson is an American Federation for Aging Research Fellow in the department of Genetics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Biochemistry and Biophysics at Oregon State University and received his Ph.D. from the University of Washington, Department of Pathology, in the Molecular Basis of Disease. He was a 2009 Howard Hughes Medical Institute EXROP scholar and was previously supported by the Nathan Shock Center Genetic Approaches to Aging pre-doctoral and Mechanisms of Cardiovascular Diseases post-doctoral competitive training grants. His current work is centered on characterizing the role of naturally occurring genetic variation in insulin/IGF-1/mTOR signaling genes on human longevity.

Dan Dominissini: For his essay on the topic of genomics and proteomics, "Roadmap to the Epitranscriptome - N6-methyl-adenosine Signals the Way, YTH Proteins Respond." Dominissini received his Bachelor of Medical Science degree from Tel-Aviv University, Israel, in 2007. He went on to study RNA post-transcriptional modifications for his Ph.D., focusing on adenosine deamination and methylation, with Gideon Rechavi at Tel-Aviv University. He is currently a Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Professor Chuan He at the University of Chicago, Illinois, USA, where he develops novel chemistries for the study of nucleic acid modifications.

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About SciLifeLab

SciLifeLab is a Swedish national center for molecular biosciences with focus on health and environmental research. The center combines frontline technical expertise with advanced knowledge of translational medicine and molecular bioscience. SciLifeLab was established in 2010 and appointed a national center in 2013 by the Swedish government. More than 200 research groups are associated with the centre, which is situated at two nodes in Stockholm and Uppsala. SciLifeLab is a joint effort between four Swedish universities (Karolinska Institutet, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm University and Uppsala University).

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