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Sharp is selected as Killian Lecturer

The 1993-94 Killian Award Lecturer is Professor Phillip A. Sharp, head of the Department of Biology, a scientist internationally recognized for his contributions to molecular biology.

The announcement was made at the May 19 faculty meeting by Professor Alar Toomre of the Department of Mathematics, chairman of the Selection Committee. Also on the committee were Professors Stephen A. Benton of Media Arts and Sciences, Jerry A. Hausman of Economics, Ellen M. Immergut of Political Science and Sanjoy K. Mitter of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

The Killian Award recognizes extraordinary professional accomplishments and service to MIT. It was established in 1971 as a tribute to the late Dr. Killian, MIT's 10th president who also served as chairman of the Corporation. The award carries an $8,000 honorarium and its recipient traditionally delivers a lecture in the spring term of the award year.

"Not yet 50 years of age," the committee said, "Phil Sharp has already become one of the giants of modern molecular biology. He happens also to be the first recipient of a Killian Award who had not yet reached MIT when this distinguished series began. He has been our colleague only since 1974."

The citation noted that Professor Sharp's degrees from Union College in his native state of Kentucky and later at the University of Illinois "reveal a budding chemist-though his undergraduate degree even mentions mathematics," a point that Professor Toomre, who heads the math department's Committee on Applied Mathematics, took obvious delight in reporting.

As a postdoctoral fellow at CalTech, the committee went on, "he began to study the molecular biology of the genetic elements known as plasmids, drawn from such humble bacteria as the E. coli that thrive in all of our digestive tracts. This was followed by a three-year stint at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, where his research moved on to related but yet more difficult problems involving animal viruses and mammalian cells. Then he came to MIT. as an associate professor.

"It was indeed here, a year or two after his arrival, that Phil Sharp made his most interesting discovery which, together with some related findings elsewhere, suddenly opened up major areas of higher-cell regulatory biology. To widespread astonishment, he and his colleagues found for a virus known as "adenovirus 2" that its genetic information is encoded in the basic DNA only in relatively short chunks now termed `exons,' and that these are separated by long stretches or `introns' with no obvious information content. Even more remarkably, they also showed that, when the time comes for adenovirus 2 to use its DNA strands to produce the so-called `messenger RNA' that conveys the actual factory orders for enzymes and proteins, then this virus manages somehow to omit all those largely useless introns-much as we often wish that we could cut out the interminable ads from some otherwise fine recorded TV program."

This process, which came to be known as "RNA splicing," was "soon found to be common-and also crucial-to the functioning of most mammalian genes, rather than just to that one specific virus which happens to cause respiratory infections. By now, many hands have worked on such splicing, but Phil Sharp remains perhaps its foremost discoverer."

Since then, the citation continued, "Sharp's laboratory has gone on to provide some of the most insightful and definitive work on the complex but robust molecular mechanisms that make splicing so common in nature. He has also succeeded in identifying quite a few of the proteins or so-called `transcription factors' that govern whether and when a gene gets read out into RNA at all. And he has been involved with manipulating the genes themselves via various artificial splicings and cloning, both in the laboratory and in the biotech industry which includes the firm Biogen of which he is a co-founder."

The committee noted that Professor Sharp has been recognized by the biomedical community with several coveted awards, including the Louisa Gross Horowitz Prize and the Albert Lasker Award given for basic research in medicine. Professor Sharp, the committee added, is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, and the American Philosophical Society.

"Here at MIT, too, Phil Sharp's advice and leadership have often been sought by students and colleagues alike. Of course, we all remember his great reluctance a few years ago to leave his research and to accept one really senior administrative position. But even then he had already served the bulk of what was to be a six-year term as a very effective director of our Center for Cancer Research, and since 1991 he has labored just as gracefully as the head of our Department of Biology.

"For all these reasons, our committee deemed it high time to applaud with this Killian Award a man who has been described to us as `an institutional treasure.'"

A version of this article appeared in the May 26, 1993 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 37, Number 34).

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