Young Scientists Win 2009 Eppendorf/Science Prizes for Neurobiology Research
Visit Science to read the essays honored by this year’s Eppendorf & Science Prize for Neurobiology and learn how to apply for the 2010 competition.
Richard Benton is the 2009 grand prize winner in the international competition for The Eppendorf & Science Prize for Neurobiology. He is being recognized for his research on the molecular mechanisms of odor detection in insects.
“We may now be able to target the unusual molecular mechanisms by which insects smell with specific inhibitors,” said Benton, assistant professor at the University of Lausanne’s Center for Integrative Genomics in Switzerland. “These could have many applications beyond the lab, for example, in controlling the odor-evoked behaviors of insects that transmit human diseases, such as the mosquito vector of malaria.”
In his prize-winning essay, Benton explains how his team’s discovery of the differences between the insect and mammalian olfactory systems should help shed light on the evolution of both systems. His research first aimed to use fruit flies as models for studying how odorant receptors transform odor recognition into neuronal activity. This goal seemed appropriate at the time, since mammalian and insect odor recognition share some overarching similarities. For example, in both systems, individual sensory neurons express just one type of odorant receptor.
However, Benton and his colleagues soon discovered that Drosophila odorant receptors use an entirely different signaling system than their mammalian counterparts do. The researchers then discovered additional genes that act in insect odor detection, including a whole new family of olfactory receptors. These findings therefore pose the question of how such differences could exist between two systems that also have such broad similarities. Finding the answer will not be easy, but it could shed important light on how this part of the nervous system arose and evolved, Benton writes.
“Our work has uncovered many surprises in how insects smell,” said Benton. “These have revealed unanticipated evolutionary parallels between insect chemosensation, immune recognition and synaptic transmission.”
“Our findings demonstrate that animal nervous systems can evolve very different solutions to the same problem of sensory detection,” he added.
The Eppendorf and Science Prize in Neurobiology recognizes outstanding neurobiological research by a young scientist, as described in a 1,000-word essay based on research performed within the last three years. The grand prize winner receives $25,000 from Eppendorf, and the winner’s essay, “Evolution and revolution in odor detection,” will be published in the 16 October 2009 issue of the journal Science.
The winner and the finalists will be recognized at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, from 17-21 October, in Chicago.
2009 Grand Prize Winner
Richard Benton obtained his Ph.D. in 2003 for research on the molecular basis of cell polarization performed in the group of Daniel St. Johnston at The Wellcome Trust/Cancer Research UK Gurdon Institute at the University of Cambridge. For his postdoctoral training, he joined Leslie Vosshall’s laboratory at Rockefeller University in New York, where he became interested in olfactory signaling mechanisms in insects. During his postdoc, he was supported by fellowships from the European Molecular Biology Organisation and the Helen Hay Whitney Foundation. He established his laboratory as assistant professor at the Center for Integrative Genomics at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, in September 2007. In 2008, he was awarded a European Research Council Starting Independent Researcher Grant. His group studies the genetic, neural, and evolutionary basis of chemosensation in the fruit fly, Drosophila.