For an exceptional career in biomedical science during which he opened two fields in biology —RNA processing and cytokine signaling — and fostered the development of many creative scientists.
The 2002 Lasker Special Achievement Award honors an imaginative scientist, influential textbook writer, and esteemed educator — James Darnell, Jr. of The Rockefeller University. For 45 years, he has led breakthroughs in our understanding of gene regulation and has fostered the careers of more than 125 scientists, many of whom have gone on to make creative contributions through their own work. By opening up two fields of biology — RNA processing and cytokine signaling — Darnell has expanded our knowledge about the means by which nucleated cells model their immature RNAs into useable forms and reprogram their genes in response to physiological signals from their surroundings.
Darnell’s monumental achievements and insights have influenced every arena of animal biology, and have opened avenues toward therapies for medical conditions that include anemia and cancer. While making these advances, he has supervised two generations of students and postdoctoral fellows. In addition to the scientists he has mentored in his own lab, he has co-written two popular textbooks that have taught tens of thousands more. His influence extends beyond that exerted by his research and writing activities: He continues to play a leading role in revitalizing The Rockefeller University by recruiting superb junior faculty to that institution and cultivating their scientific development.
Award presentation by Eric Kandel
For the past 50 years — the past half-century — out of which emerged the coherent molecular-based biology that we now enjoy, the scientific community has been fortunate in having been served brilliantly by several truly outstanding leaders. Each of these combined scientific creativity with a broad vision and a commitment to biology as a whole. James Darnell, whom we honor today with a Lasker Special Achievement Award, is one of these great leaders. More than anyone else, Jim helped redirect molecular biology from its origins in the study of genes in bacteria and bacterial viruses to a focus on the larger picture, the genes in the cells of higher organisms. Moreover, he led by example, by making not one but two fundamental contributions. One, in the 1960s he discovered that, in mammalian cells, messenger RNA, which carries the message from the DNA template on how to make proteins, is processed from a larger to a smaller functional form. Two, in the 1980s he discovered how signals outside the cell lead to the turning on of genes inside the cell.
James E. Darnell Jr.
Interview with James Darnell, Jr.