Science  31 Mar 2006:
Vol. 311, Issue 5769, pp. 1863

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    PROTEIN PRIZE. Biologist Alexander Varshavsky of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena has been awarded the March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology for his research on the protein ubiquitin. Varshavsky, 59, is widely credited for first explaining how ubiquitin works in living cells, and some felt he should have been among the laureates when the discoverers of ubiquitin received the 2004 Nobel Prize in chemistry. “Alex's pioneering work catapulted the ubiquitin field into one of the hottest in modern biology,” says biochemist Stefan Jentsch of the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Martinsried, Germany. But he and others say Varshavsky's work is more appropriate for a physiology or medicine award, and they have called for a second ubiquitin-related Nobel.

    The March of Dimes awards its $250,000 prize each year for research that expands scientists' understanding of birth defects.



    FIRST FOR FRANCE. Geneticist Antoine Kremer is the first French scientist to win the Marcus Wallenberg Prize for forestry research. He will receive $250,000 from Sweden's Wallenberg Foundation for a genetic inventory of European oak trees in 2600 forests from Spain to the Urals.

    Kremer led a network of 30 labs in 15 countries tracing European oak migration since the last ice age 17,000 years ago. The data will improve tree conservation and forest management. “The trees' diversity enabled them to adapt to the changing climate and should continue to do so as global warming progresses,” says Kremer, 54, who is research director at L'Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique in Bordeaux.

    Kremer will receive the award in Stockholm in September. The Wallenberg Foundation was created in 1980 to recognize advances in forestry research.



    NUCLEAR OPTIONS. Weapons designer George Miller sees his new post as interim director of the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory as a “special responsibility” to protect and study the nation's nuclear arsenal. A Livermore employee for more than 2 decades, Miller, 61, replaces Michael Anastasio, who is leaving to run Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

    Livermore, a $1.6 billion facility east of San Francisco currently managed by the University of California (UC), is one of three main government nuclear weapons laboratories. Insiders say hiring a weapons designer such as Miller suggests the focus at Livermore will remain development and studies of the nuclear stockpile, despite the lab's recent forays into biodefense and computing.

    Miller says he wants the lab to compete aggressively for a DOE-funded initiative to design new nuclear weapons. He's also “working vigorously” to address recent findings by a DOE investigation into two contained leaks of radioactive material.

    Miller will serve as interim director until September 2007, when Livermore's contract expires. UC hasn't decided whether it will try to retain the contract, or whether Miller would play a role.



    ANSWER MAN. As the recently appointed chief scientist for, Tao Yang has a lot of questions on his mind. The company he works for, the Web search engine formerly known as Ask Jeeves, receives more than 130,000 queries per month.

    In addition to day-to-day troubleshooting, Yang will oversee development of technology to improve the speed and accuracy of responses to submitted questions. The work “is extremely challenging because it touches on all aspects of computer science,” he says.

    Yang joined 5 years ago after he and his colleagues invented the ExpertRank search algorithm, which identifies “expert” Web pages on a certain topic and uses their links as a way to rank other sites, as opposed to other engines that treat all links equally. The algorithm has powered since 2001, says Yang, who is also a computer science professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. With billions of Web pages to sift through, Yang says his goal is to “order the information so people can digest it.”


    RECORD GIFT. Columbia University plans to use a $200 million gift from a longtime benefactor to build a neuroscience research center at its new Manhattanville campus in West Harlem. The largest donation in Columbia's history comes from the Jerome L. Greene Foundation and was announced last week by the New York lawyer's widow, Dawn Greene.

    The center, to be named after Greene, will be headed by neurobiologist Thomas Jessell and Nobel laureates Richard Axel and Eric Kandel and will be the hub of Columbia's new Mind, Brain, and Behavior initiative launched in 2004. “Mixing physics, chemistry, and engineering with a core of neuroscience is the way to go,” Jessell says.

    Construction of the new 37,000-square-meter center will begin “as soon as possible,” Jessell says.