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Behavioral Geneticist Wins Top US Medical Award

A pioneer in the field of behavioral genetics has won the United States' top prize in medicine, the $500,000 Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research.

Seymour Benzer, 84, is known as the "father of neurogenetics."

The prize committee says Benzer's work uncovered the genetic links to behavior in fruit flies that serve today as the foundation for the study and treatment of diseases of the brain and central nervous system.

"Once we find the gene in the fly that controls a particular kind of behavior or neurological function, then we look in the human genome to find the corresponding gene in the human," said Mr. Benzer. "Very often these are very closely related. The importance is that we can then use the fruit fly as an experimental animal to try to get around the defects. For instance, by applying drugs and screening different kinds of compounds. We do experiments on the fly, which you cannot do on the human to get clues to treatment and understand the mechanism."

Prior to Benzer's discoveries, many scientists believed environment primarily shaped human behavior.

The prize committee cited Benzer for more than half a century of work in three disciplines: physics, molecular biology and behavioral biology. The committee says Seymour Benzer's seminal discoveries profoundly influenced a generation of scientists.

Before pioneering the filed of neurogenetics, Benzer is credited with discoveries in molecular biology that helped pave the way for the Human Genome Project, the effort to map the three billion genes in the human genome.

"I worked on the structure of the gene and the virus that attacks bacteria and the contribution there was to bridge the gap between the structure of DNA and what the actual gene structure was that corresponds to it," he noted.

Benzer, a New York City native, is professor emeritus of neuroscience at the California Institute of Technology. The scientist says he is proudest of still making it into his laboratory every day.

In the world of medical research, the Albany award is second only to the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. The prize began in 2000 with a $50 million gift commitment to the Medical Center from Morris Silverstein, a New York businessman, to encourage biomedical research. Silverstein, who passed away in January at the age of 93, wanted to create an American Nobel Prize.