The 2008 Novitski Prize: Thomas J. Silhavy

By Thorner, Jeremy W. | Genetics, March 2008 | Go to article overview

The 2008 Novitski Prize: Thomas J. Silhavy


Thorner, Jeremy W., Genetics


THE recipient of the inaugural Novitski Prize of the Genetics Society of America is Thomas J. Silhavy, a world-renowned bacterial geneticist. The award, named in honor of influential Drosophila geneticist Edward Novitski (1918-2006) and supported through the generosity of his family, was established to recognize an extraordinary level of creativity and intellectual ingenuity in solving significant problems in biological research through the application of genetic methods. The scientific accomplishments of Tom Silhavy truly represent the kind of achievements in research that stand out because of their innovativeness and because of the deep insights about all cells that have sprung from his discoveries using the enteric gram-negative eubacterium Escherichia coli as his model organism. It can indeed be said that Tom Silhavy's path-finding research into fundamental mechanisms of protein secretion, membrane assembly, and sensing of environmental cues established basic paradigms that are now the content of all modern textbooks of microbial genetics and cell biology. Most importantly, the clever selections and screens used to identify the gene products and underlying mechanisms involved in these processes that were and are being used by Tom Silhavy are brilliant examples of the beauty and ingenuity that can be brought to bear when genetics is used as a tool for scientific discovery, as recounted below.

It was not always clear that Tom's path would lead him to the door of genetics to carry out his major life's work because he manifested early on an aptitude for the chemical side of biology. He received his B.S. summa cum laude in Pharmacy from Ferris State College in Big Rapids, Michigan, in 1971. He then entered the graduate program of the Department of Biological Chemistry at Harvard Medical School in Boston, where he had the good fortune to elect to carry out his doctoral dissertation research under the guidance of Winfried Boos, whose group was situated then in the Biochemical Research Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital. In a remarkable series of nine articles published in the mid- to late 1970s, in the midst of which Tommoved with Winfried briefly to the Institut Pasteur in Paris (1974-1975) and then to Germany when Winfried accepted a faculty position at the University of Konstanz (where he has remained ever since), Tom made major strides in investigating the protein machinery necessary for the active transport of galactose, galactosides, and other carbon sources into E. coli, especially the role of periplasmic substrate-binding proteins. This work ran the gamut from organic synthesis of an all-purpose galactoside analog to the development of convenient assays for transport kinetics to ligand-binding measurements to the electrophoretic analysis of the composition of purified membranes. So, it seemed that Tom was at risk of holding legitimate credentials as a gifted biochemist. However, during that same period, Tom also devised and applied a clever selection procedure to isolate mutants defective in the E. coli transport system for b-methylgalactosides-and, thenceforth, he was hooked on the value of genetics to get to the beating heart of a biological problem. This growing penchant for genetics was strongly reinforced during his time in Paris by his further training and exceptionally productive collaborations with Maxime Schwartz and his circle of colleagues at the Institut Pasteur.

After receipt of his M.A. (1974) and Ph.D. (1975) in record time, and following his stay in Europe, Tom irrevocably sealed his fate as a molecular geneticist by returning to Boston and Harvard Medical School to receive further postdoctoral training (1975-1977) with legendary bacterial geneticist Jonathan R. Beckwith, in whose lab he was supported by a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship from the Jane Coffin Childs Memorial Fund for Medical Research. It was with Jon Beckwith that Tom was instrumental in establishing the use of gene fusions as an incisive experimental tool for a variety of genetic applications, a methodology that is now part of the repertoire of practically every biological scientist who works at the molecular and cellular level. …

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