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April 16, 2001

Noted biologist to discuss protein diversity

By Erica Klarreich

When researchers published the first draft of the human genome in February, one unexpected finding was that humans have only 30,000 to 35,000 genes, about twice as many as a fly. This prompted some to wonder how human complexity could arise from such a small set of genetic instructions. The answer may lie in molecular tricks that enable a single gene to produce more than one protein.

This molecular sleight of hand will be the subject of a free public lecture on Friday, April 20, at UCSC. John Abelson, the George Beadle Professor of Biology at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, will talk about "Pre-mRNA Splicing: Ancient Biochemistry for Generating Modern Protein Diversity." The lecture will begin at 4 p.m. in Room 152 at the Baskin School of Engineering.

Abelson's talk inaugurates a new series of annual lectures in biology on campus. The Sinsheimer Distinguished Lectureship in Biology is supported by an endowment from Chancellor Emeritus Robert L. Sinsheimer and his wife, Karen. Robert Sinsheimer, who was chancellor from 1977 to 1987, is a renowned molecular biologist and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

This year's lecture is being hosted by the Department of Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology, which will alternate with the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in planning the yearly lectures.

Abelson earned his Ph.D. in biophysics from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in 1965 and did his postdoctoral work in biochemistry at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, from 1965 to 1968. Before joining Caltech's faculty in 1982, he was a member of the Chemistry Department at the University of California, San Diego. While at San Diego, he cofounded the Agouron Institute and Agouron Pharmaceuticals, the drug company that developed the HIV protease inhibitors now in use against AIDS.

A member of the National Academy of Sciences, Abelson conducts research on the nature of enzymes and RNA-protein complexes involved in processing RNA after it has been copied from DNA and before it is translated into protein.

Abelson has received the American Cancer Society Faculty Award and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship. He has been chair of the Division of Biology at Caltech. He also serves as an editor for several scientific journals and is the immediate past-president of the RNA Society.

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