Neil Hunter, a UC Davis professor of microbiology and molecular genetics, has been named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, an honor reserved for scientists who exhibit exceptionally original thinking.
Hunter, who studies how genes are shuffled, then passed to future generations, was one of 27 new investigators named on Thursday. The institute selected them from a field of 1,155 applicants.
Robert Tjian, Hughes Institute president, said in a news release that it seeks to “find the best original-thinking scientists and give them the resources to follow their instincts in discovering basic biological processes that may one day lead to better medical outcomes.”
The 330 Hughes investigators nationwide are urged to “take risks, to explore unproven avenues, and to embrace the unknown — even if it means uncertainty or the chance of failure.”
The award will pay Hunter’s salary, those of his research staff and other laboratory expenses, about $1 million annually, for five years, when he can apply for renewal of the grant.
The Hughes investigators are not required to write annual reports and are free to change research directions. They are expected to devote about three-quarters of their time to research, the rest to teaching and other duties.
Hunter is the first UCD faculty member to be picked for the program.
Dean James Hildreth said the award was an “exceptional honor” for both Hunter and the College of Biological Sciences, while Chancellor Linda Katehi said the award “underlines the growing prestige and influence of UC Davis as a center for biomedical research.”
Added Hildreth, “(Hunter) is a leader in the field of DNA recombination and his research has major implications for understanding many diseases, including cancer.”
Hunter’s research seeks to reveal how cells shuffle their DNA and distribute the right number of chromosomes to each sperm or egg cell. If that process goes wrong, it can lead to developmental defects like Down syndrome.
Such chromosomal imbalances are also responsible for an estimated 500,000 miscarriages that occur in the country annually.
In 2009, the Hughes Institute selected Hunter for an early career award. He gave credit for his ongoing success to “the understanding, encouragement and support of my family, colleagues, department chairs and deans, both past and present.”
In 2011, two UCD plant biologists, Jorge Dubcovsky and the late Simon Chan, were among the first scientists honored with a separate but similar award aimed at funding research that may lead to improved crops. That award is funded jointly by the Hughes Institute and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.