March 21, 2005

Prestigious HHMI appointments go to two Salk Institute Researchers


Salk News

Prestigious HHMI appointments go to two Salk Institute Researchers


La Jolla, CA – Sascha du Lac and Joseph P. Noel, both basic research scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, were selected for the prestigious position of Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator.

Du Lac focuses on how the brain learns to stabilize an image on the retina of the eye and compensate for head movement. This simpler form of motor learning provides du Lac with a model system to unravel the more complex cellular and molecular mechanisms in the brain that are modified by experience. A systems neuroscientist, du Lac hopes that her research will improve scientific understanding about how these critical mechanisms operate within the context of neural circuits to mediate adaptive changes in behavior.

In plants and microbes, the biochemist Noel searches for the roots of biological diversity at the chemical level. Through this research, he hopes to harness and alter the biosynthetic pathways, needed to produce complex molecular scaffolds that will expedite the development of effective medicines.

The two Salk scientists are among the 10 California-based researchers selected as new HHMI investigators. With du Lac’s and Noel’s appointments, the Salk Institute’s 57-member faculty will have seven scientists who are HHMI investigators. Du Lac and Noel are among 43 researchers nationwide newly designated as HHMI investigators. These 43 researchers increase the HHMI’s total investigators nationwide to almost 350.

Their HHMI appointments will bring du Lac and Noel additional resources that will help expedite their basic research and enable them to move quickly and directly into promising new avenues.

“In the course of research scientists sometimes bump into puzzling findings that are completely unanticipated,” says du Lac. “Pursuing unexpected results can lead to really fundamental discoveries.”

“The HHMI funding will give us the latitude, the leeway, to follow new ideas and findings right away, and not set them aside until additional funding can be acquired,” adds Noel.

Du Lac, the institute’s Hearst Endowment Associate Professor in Systems Neurobiology, gives credit to the Salk’s highly collegial scientific environment for enabling her to develop tools for performing integrated analyses of motor learning and memory storage at the behavioral, circuit, cellular and molecular levels.

The HHMI biography about du Lac states, “Scientists who are knowledgeable about her research view du Lac as poised to make the links across levels of analysis to provide a plausible explanation, in terms of molecules, cells, and circuits, for one form of behavioral learning.”

Noel’s basic research studies in the Salk Institute’s Jack Skirball Chemical Biology and Proteomics Laboratory, is unraveling the structure and function of the enzymes that plants and microbes use to produce three important classes of natural compounds, polyketides, terpenes and hybrid polyketide-terpene chemicals.

A Professor at the Salk Institute, Noel seeks to understand the natural chemical factories plants and microbes use to produce a vast array of compounds that allow them to survive and prosper in the multitude of challenging ecosystems found all over the earth.

Some of these natural chemicals are used for ‘communication’ with other species in the their local environment, and some are used for their own defense – both as natural chemical weapons against other organisms or as chemical strategies to adapt to challenging physical environments. Moreover, such compounds already have played an important role as sources of new pharmaceutical drugs such as the anti-cancer drug Taxol.

In addition to investigating how the structures of these chemical compounds, the result of hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary change and natural selection, Noel examines how these enzymes organize themselves in space and time to form complex metabolic pathways.

About Salk Institute:

Opening its doors in 1965, just 10 years after its founder Jonas Salk, M.D., proved that his vaccine against polio was safe and effective, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies is a nexus for basic research that uncovers the fundamental biological principles governing life at all levels, from the individual cell to an entire population. This November, the Salk Institute celebrates its 40th anniversary on its La Jolla campus, designed by the acclaimed architect Louis Kahn in collaboration with Salk. Their collaboration produced a breathtaking, widely praised design that nurtures scientific creativity and fosters the collaboration among researchers that is the hallmark of great science.

About HHMI:

A nonprofit medical research organization, HHMI was established in 1953 by the aviator-industrialist. The Institute, headquartered in Chevy Chase, Maryland, is one of the largest philanthropies in the world with an endowment of $12.8 billion at the close of its 2004 fiscal year. HHMI spent $573 million in support of biomedical research and $80 million for support of a variety of science education and other grants programs in fiscal 2004. For more information:

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