Gairdner lecturer’s work revolutionized gene silencing

Andrew Fire, professor of biology in the departments of Pathology and Genetics, Stanford University, will present the Gairdner International Awards Annual Lecture, titled “RNA-Based genome surveillance mechanisms”, today, 2-3pm, in the Senate Chamber, N940 Ross Bldg.

Andrew Z. Fire

Right: Andrew Fire

Fire is a 2005 Gairdner International Award Recipient for the “discovery of RNA interference which initiated a revolution in the study and use of RNA in gene silencing.” Post-transcriptional gene silencing (PTGS), which was initially considered a bizarre phenomenon limited to petunias and a few other plant species, is now one of the hottest topics in molecular biology. In the last few years, it has become clear that PTGS occurs in both plants and animals and has roles in viral defence and transposon silencing mechanisms. Perhaps most exciting, however, is the emerging use of PTGS and, in particular, RNA interference (RNAi) — PTGS initiated by the introduction of double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) — as a tool to knock out expression of specific genes in a variety of organisms.

With his studies on gene regulation in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, Fire has made important contributions to describing and elucidating mechanisms of gene silencing by double stranded RNA. This paradigm of gene silencing contributed to by the work of Fire has been described as “one of the most exciting discoveries of recent times in molecular biology”. Much effort has been focused on the efficacy of a system that can use just a few molecules of dsRNA to silence a large population of target molecules. The underlying responses to these silencing triggers are present in many organisms, and in plants have clearly been shown to be involved in response to pathogenic challenges. These gene silencing processes in animal systems have a role in viral pathogenesis and in tumor progression in mammalian systems.

In his laboratory, the Fire Lab, he and his colleagues study a variety of natural mechanisms that are utilized by cells adapting to genetic change. These include mechanisms activated during normal development and systems for detecting and responding to foreign or unwanted genetic activity. At the root of these studies are questions of how a cell can distinguish “self” versus “nonself” and “wanted” versus “unwanted” gene expression.

About Andrew Z. Fire

Fire is a native of Santa Clara County, Calif., and received his PhD in biology from MIT in 1983. He did postdoctoral work at the Medical Research Council laboratory in Cambridge, UK, before joining the staff at the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Department of Embryology in Baltimore, Md. While there, Fire taught at Johns Hopkins University. In 2003, Fire joined the faculty at Stanford. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a recipient of many awards and prizes including the Wiley Prize from Rockefeller University in 2003, the National Academy of Sciences Molecular Biology Award in 2003, and the H.P. Heineken Prize in Biochemistry and Biophysics from the Netherlands Academy of Sciences in 2004.

About the Gairdner Awards

The Gairdner Foundation recognizes the world’s top medical research scientists via the Gairdner International Awards. The purpose of these awards is the recognition of individuals whose work or contribution constitutes tangible achievement in the field of medical science. Awards are presented in Toronto to each winner, in person.

The awards program is international in scope and three to six winners are chosen annually from hundreds of candidates who have been previously nominated by their peers. The selection process starts in November with a medical review panel, a group of outstanding scientists, who review each nomination and submit their selection by way of a long and short list to the medical advisory board. The board is comprised of an equally dedicated group of scientists from across Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. In early January, the board meets in Toronto to review the lists. After an in-depth study and lengthy discussion of each nominee on the lists and a comparison of their work with others in their respective field, secret ballots are cast and winners chosen.

The Gairdner International Award is given to individuals from a diversity of fields for outstanding discoveries or contributions to medical science. The Wightman Award is given from time to time to a Canadian who has demonstrated outstanding leadership in medicine and medical science.