Wolf Prize Laureate in Medicine 1991
The Prize Committee in Medicine has unanimously decided that the Wolf Prize for 1991 be awarded to:
California Institute of Technology
Pasadena, California, USA
“for having generated a new field of molecular neurogenetics by his pioneering research on the dissection of the nervous system and behavior by gene mutations.”
In 1967 Professor Seymour Benzer, already famous for mapping the fine structure of a bacteriophage gene, discovered that exposure of a population of Drosophila to a mutagen generated an extraordinary variety of mutants affecting various aspects of behavior. This discovery led him to the use of single gene mutations to dissect the complex mechanisms involved in the development and function of the nervous system. Benzer and associates identified mutations affecting visual reception, circadian rhythm, memory, excitable membrane channels, synaptic function, and the development of the photoreceptor cell lattice of the compound eye, as well as hereditary pathological defects analogous to human disorders, such as photoreceptor, muscle and brain degeneration. These are under intensive study in laboratories worldwide, which led to the genes being cloned, sequenced, and their functions determined. Benzer continues to work at the cutting edge of molecular neurobiology, with the development of widely used monoclonal antibody probes for proteins involved in neural differentiation.
Due to Benzer’s pioneering discoveries, Drosophila has become the key model system for molecular neurogenetics. Many of the genes discovered have closely homologous counterparts in humans, allowing one to localize their expression and comparison of defects in the human brain, thus opening the way to use the knowledge obtained with Drosophila to unravel similar mechanisms in man.