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Researchers share $22m Breakthrough prize as science gets rock star treatment

Glitzy ceremony honours work including that on mapping post-big bang primordial light, cell biology, plant science and neurodegenerative diseases

The most glitzy event on the scientific calendar took place on Sunday night when the Breakthrough Foundation gave away $22m (16.3m) in prizes to dozens of physicists, biologists and mathematicians at a ceremony in Silicon Valley.

The winners this year include five researchers who won $3m (2.2m) each for their work on cell biology, plant science and neurodegenerative diseases, two mathematicians, and a team of 27 physicists who mapped the primordial light that warmed the universe moments after the big bang 13.8 billion years ago.

Now in their sixth year, the Breakthrough prizes are backed by Yuri Milner, a Silicon Valley tech investor, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and his wife Priscilla Chan, Anne Wojcicki from the DNA testing company 23andMe, and Googles Sergey Brin. Launched by Milner in 2012, the awards aim to make rock stars of scientists and raise their profile in the public consciousness.

The annual ceremony at Nasas Ames Research Center in California provides a rare opportunity for some of the worlds leading minds to rub shoulders with celebrities, who this year included Morgan Freeman as host, fellow actors Kerry Washington and Mila Kunis, and Miss USA 2017 Kra McCullough. When Joe Polchinski at the University of California in Santa Barbara shared the physics prize last year, he conceded his nieces and nephews would know more about the A-list attendees than he would.

Oxford University geneticist Kim Nasmyth won for his work on chromosomes but said he had not worked out what to do with the windfall. Its a wonderful bonus, but not something you expect, he said. Its a huge amount of money, I havent had time to think it through. On being recognised for what amounts to his lifes work, he added: You have to do science because you want to know, not because you want to get recognition. If you do what it takes to please other people, youll lose your moral compass. Nasmyth has won lucrative awards before and channelled some of his winnings into Gregor Mendels former monastery in Brno.

Another life sciences prizewinner, Joanne Chory at the Salk Institute in San Diego, was honoured for three decades of painstaking research into the genetic programs that flip into action when plants find themselves plunged into shade. Her work revealed that plants can sense when a nearby competitor is about to steal their light, sparking a growth spurt in response. The plants detect threatening neighbours by sensing a surge in the particular wavelengths of red light that are given off by vegetation.

Chory now has ambitious plans to breed plants that can suck vast quantities of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in a bid to combat climate change. She believes that crops could be selected to absorb 20 times more of the greenhouse gas than they do today, and convert it into suberin, a waxy material found in roots and bark that breaks down incredibly slowly in soil. If we can do this on 5% of the landmass people are growing crops on, we can take out 50% of global human emissions, she said.

Three other life sciences prizes went to Kazutoshi Mori at Kyoto University and Peter Walter for their work on quality control mechanisms that keep cells healthy, and to Don Cleveland at the University of California, San Diego, for his research on motor neurone disease.

The $3m Breakthrough prize in mathematics was shared by two British-born mathematicians, Christopher Hacon at the University of Utah and James McKernan at the University of California in San Diego. The pair made major contributions to a field of mathematics known as birational algebraic geometry, which sets the rules for projecting abstract objects with more than 1,000 dimensions onto lower-dimensional surfaces. It gets very technical, very quickly, said McKernan.

Speaking before the ceremony, Hacon was feeling a little unnerved. Its really not a mathematician kind of thing, but Ill probably survive, he said. Ive got a tux ready, but Im not keen on wearing it. Asked what he might do with his share of the winnings, Hacon was nothing if not realistic. Ill start by paying taxes, he said. And I have six kids, so the rest will evaporate.

Chuck Bennett, an astrophysicist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, led a Nasa mission known as the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) to map the faint afterglow of the big bangs radiation that now permeates the universe. The achievement, now more than a decade old, won the 27-strong science team the $3m Breakthrough prize in fundamental physics. When we made our first maps of the sky, I thought these are beautiful, Bennett told the Guardian. It is still absolutely amazing to me. We can look directly back in time.

Bennett believes that the prizes may help raise the profile of science at a time when it is sorely needed. The point is not to make rock stars of us, but of the science itself, he said. I dont think people realise how big a role science plays in their lives. In everything you do, from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep, theres something about what youre doing that involves scientific advances. I dont think people think about that at all.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/dec/04/researchers-share-22m-breakthrough-prize-as-science-gets-rock-star-treatment

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Breakthrough prize awards $25m to researchers at ‘Oscars of science’

Researchers in life sciences, fundamental physics and mathematics share awards from prize founders Yuri Milner, Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin

It is not often that a scientist walks the red carpet at a Silicon Valley party and has Morgan Freeman award them millions of dollars while Alicia Keys performs on stage and other A-listers rub shoulders with Nasa astronauts.

But the guest list for the Breakthrough prize ceremony is intended to make it an occasion. At the fifth such event in California last night, a handful of the worlds top researchers left their labs behind for the limelight. Honoured for their work on black holes and string theory, DNA repair and rare diseases, and unfathomable modifications to Schrdingers equation, they went home to newly recharged bank accounts.

Founded by Yuri Milner, the billionaire tech investor, with Facebooks Mark Zuckerberg and Googles Sergey Brin, the Breakthrough prizes aim to right a perceived wrong: that scientists and engineers are not appreciated by society. With lucrative prizes and a lavish party dubbed the Oscars of science, Milner and his companions want to elevate scientists to rock star status.

The Silicon Valley backers paid out $25m in prizes at Sundays ceremony at Nasas Ames Research Center in California. It brought the total winnings for researchers in physics, life sciences and mathematics to $175m since the prizes were launched in 2012.

Huda Zoghbi, a Lebanese-born medical scientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, was discussing her postdoctoral researchers latest data when a prize judge called to tell her she had won. Sworn to secrecy, Zoghbi asked her postdoc, Laura, to leave the room while she took the call. I was totally stunned, she said. After the call, I invited Laura back in to continue our meeting, but can you imagine trying to concentrate?

Zoghbis work is a masterclass in scientific investigation. In one branch of research, she set out to understand the genetic causes of a rare condition called spinocerebellar ataxia. She ran tests on families affected by the disorder and found that a mutation in a gene called SCA1 was the sole cause of the disease. She then bred mice with the same mutation so she could study the disorder as it progressed from first symptoms.

Tests on the mice revealed that when SCA1 was mutated, the protein the gene helps to make could not be cleared from the animals cells properly. And just as rubbish builds up in the house when the bins are not emptied, so levels of the protein, ataxin1, built up in mice with the mutation. These cells may have only 10 to 20% more protein, but that little bit extra is enough to wreak havoc in the brain cells, Zoghbi said.

Having teased out the mechanism underlying the disease, Zoghbi went on to find an enzyme that when suppressed caused ataxin1 levels to fall. Her team is now searching for drugs that can block the enzyme. If they find one, it could become a treatment for the devastating disease.

Spinocerebellar ataxia affects one in 100,000 people. But Zoghbis work on the condition, and on another called Rett syndrome, led her to study the most common neurodegenerative diseases, Parkinsons and Alzheimers. In both groups of patients, abnormal proteins build up in the brain and potentially kill off neurons. In her latest work, Zoghbi showed that blocking an enzyme called Nuak1 stopped a protein called tau building up in the brains of mice. High levels of tau have long been linked to Alzheimers disease. What we have is a potential druggable target for dementia, she said.

Zoghbi, who received one of the five Breakthrough prizes in life sciences, plans to set up a mentorship award; a fund to help young postdocs pursue their own ideas; and scholarships at her alma mater, the American University in Beirut.

The prizes may give scientists a glimpse of fame, but celebrity has little appeal, Zoghbi said. Material things and limelight are fleeting, they come and go. You could give me all the money in the world to do another job and I wouldnt do it, she said. I am working on something that will help people, and that reward is with you every day. She sees her colleagues as an extended family: her lab members call themselves Zoghbians.

Among the other awards handed out on Sunday was the Breakthrough prize in mathematics, won by Jean Bourgain at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton for work that ranges from extensions to Schrdingers equation, to the unification of maths itself. The Breakthrough prize in fundamental physics was shared by three academics for work on string theory and black holes. Joe Polchinski at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has studied the baffling question of what happens to information that tumbles into black holes, plans to use the winnings for the betterment of science, but said he was terrified at what the next US administration might mean for research.

Morgan Freeman was invited to host Sundays ceremony, where others on the guest list included Alex A-Rod Rodriguez, the former Nasa astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly, will.i.am, and Bryce Dallas Howard, who as Claire Dearing in Jurassic World justified the creation of the troublesome Indominus rex with the line: We needed something scary and easy to pronounce. The celebrities, however, might find they are as unknown to the scientists as the scientists are to the them. My nieces and nephews will know more about them then I do, said Polchinski.

Another life sciences prize winner on Sunday was Stephen Elledge, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School. I wasnt expecting it, he told the Guardian. What can you say when someone tells you they are going to give you $3m? Im not used to that, I can tell you.

Elledge discovered how cells respond to DNA damage. The mechanism can kill off the most tattered cells and put others into a state of suspended animation called senescence. The process prevents cancer by shutting down abnormal cells, but senescence also triggers inflammation that drives ageing. Elledge is now looking for ways to turn off the inflammation, or wipe out senescent cells completely. That could impact all kinds of diseases in the ageing population, he said.

He is still working out what to do with his winnings, but one hope is to set up scholarships for disadvantaged kids from his hometown of Paris, Illinois. He also wants to support institutions that could come under pressure in the next administration. Now that the political terrain has shifted in the US there are going to be a lot more places that will need help, he said. In the US there is pressure against science. People deny the validity of science and facts. These are dark days. And as scientists we have to push back. We have to stand up to the challenge.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/dec/05/breakthrough-prize-awards-2016-25m-to-researchers-at-oscars-of-science

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