ARLINGTON, Va.- Angelika Amon, a cancer researcher caught up in the cell cycle, will receive the National Science Foundation's (NSF) highest honor for young scientists and engineers at a May 21 ceremony in Washington, D.C.
Amon explores how chromosomes--which carry an organism's genes in organized arrays--are duplicated and partitioned prior to cell division. For this and similar research, she will receive NSF's Alan T. Waterman Award. Established in 1975 and named for NSF's first director, the annual award honors an outstanding young scientist with a medal and a $500,000 grant to continue his or her scientific pursuits. Amon is the fourth woman to receive the Waterman Award and the third recipient from MIT.
Though Amon's findings are based on studies with yeast, they could help researchers better understand tumors, birth defects and miscarriages.
According to NSF Director Rita Colwell, "Serious inquiries into basic scientific questions, such as Dr. Amon's work, are of immense value. While it's not always clear where such rigorous explorations will lead nor what their ultimate returns to humanity will be, it is vital to humanity that we embark upon them."
A faculty member of the Center for Cancer Research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) since 1999, Amon is also an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). Born in Austria in 1967, she earned her bachelor's and doctoral degrees at the University of Vienna. She first came to the U.S. in 1994 for postdoctoral studies.
As one HHMI colleague puts it, her papers are "classics," and her studies "completely reoriented the cell-cycle field."
Amon examines the intricate mechanisms of two key processes in cell reproduction: mitosis and meiosis. In mitosis, a "mother" cell divides into two "daughter" cells, each with an identical, full set of chromosomes. In meiosis, specialized cells used in sexual reproduction--called gametes--are created. Each gamete carries a unique, single set of chromosomes; for example, in many organisms, including mammals, males gametes are sperm, and female gametes are eggs.
For a cell to replicate exactly (and then exactly again after that), the chromosomes must be duplicated and a copy placed in each daughter cell-before the daughter cells divide and go their separate ways. It takes a precisely choreographed biochemical ballet as various molecules inhibit, activate, bind and regulate the movements of chromosomal materials.
Taking her own delicate technical steps in the lab, Amon discovered that the routine involves chromosome regulators themselves being regulated by a mechanism called "spindle position checkpoint." In the successful partitioning of chromosomes in new cells, timing is everything. Daughter cells do not do well if they make their "mitotic exit" without first receiving an exactly full complement of chromosomes.
According to Amon, "The analysis of the yeast cell cycle is only the first step in our efforts to unravel the controls that govern cell-cycle progression."
Her lab's long-term goals are to test whether these mechanisms also operate in mammalian cells and to determine what role they play in tumor formation or aneuploidy, the condition of missing or extra chromosomes.
In researching meiosis, the basic machinery of which remains similar from yeast to humans, Amon and her colleagues hope to determine how chromosomes are accurately transmitted to gametes. Faulty transmission, she says, is a major cause of birth defects and the leading cause of miscarriages.
Colleagues call her work "elegant" and cite her "unerring eye for the key problems" and "energy enough for a small army." She says the key is persistence.
"It is quite clear," she says, "if a cell really cares about something it has several layers of control mechanisms that can make sure that this cell-cycle event is regulated correctly. Peeling off these many different layers can be quite tedious."
In the day-to-day effort, she sets incremental goals for herself and her students, including that they "learn a thing or two about the cell cycle." But she also has dreams of helping to understand the causes of cancer and how it can be prevented.
"I'm a firm believer that it is basic research that will uncover cures for disease," she says, citing the work of Sir Alexander Fleming, who discovered how the human body fights bacterial infections and shared the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1945 for his role in the discovery of penicillin.
(The 1997 recipient of the NSF's Waterman award, Eric Cornell, shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 2001 for fundamental studies into a newly discovered state of matter called the Bose-Einstein condensate.)
"The Waterman Award allows the National Science Foundation to demonstrate its faith in pioneering efforts pursued by our most promising young scientists. With her energy, creative ideas, technical acumen and willingness to share what she discovers, Angelika Amon exemplifies this spirit of discovery among the latest generation of scientists. NSF is honored to help foster her future," Colwell said.