Sept. 25, 2003 – Vol. 23 No. 1

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    Li wins Balzan Prize for research on evolutionary molecular genetics

    By Catherine Gianaro
    Medical Center Public Affairs

    Wen-Hsiung Li

    The International Balzan Foundation has awarded the prestigious Balzan Prize in genetics and evolution to Wen-Hsiung Li, the George Wells Beadle Distinguished Service Professor in Ecology & Evolution.

    The $709,000 award is often referred to as the “Italian Nobel.” Li is one of four people worldwide to receive a Balzan Prize this year for contributions to science and the humanities. The three other 2003 prizewinners are British historian Eric Hobsbawm, French psychologist Serge Moscovici and German astronomer Reinhard Genzel.

    “The past awardees in genetics and evolution were giants in my field,” Li said, “so it was a big surprise to me when I received the notice from the president of the Balzan Foundation.”

    The foundation’s citation stated: “Wen-Hsiung Li has made seminal contributions to the field of evolutionary molecular genetics. He has developed widely used methods for inferring phylogenetic relationships and has made important discoveries about the rate of genetic change in different groups of animals. The recent completion of the mapping of the human genome placed Li among the top scholars who could analyze evolutionary molecular genetics.”

    The 2003 award presentation ceremony will take place in Berne, Switzerland, on Friday, Nov. 7, in the Federal Parliament Buildings.

    Li graduated with a B.S. from Chung Yuan College of Sciences and Engineering in Taiwan, where he majored in civil engineering. He earned an M.S. in geophysics from National Central University before coming to the United States to study at Brown University, where he earned a Ph.D. in applied mathematics in 1972.

    He has developed and applied mathematical techniques to a very wide range of problems, and his methods are among the most generally used in the field.

    Since the explosion of DNA sequence data in the 1980s, Li has been the architect of methods for inferring evolutionary relationships from comparison of DNA sequences. He was particularly influential in establishing methods for estimating the degree of accuracy of evolutionary trees and the statistical confidence that can be placed in them.

    One key to the interpretation of DNA data is the assumption that changes in DNA data take place at a constant rate through evolutionary time-the so-called “molecular clock.” This assumption is used to pinpoint the time of divergence of evolutionary lineages.

    Li was the first to show, in the 1980s, that the clock runs at a speed dependent on generation time: the shorter the generation, the faster the clock. For example, the clock runs five times as fast in rats and mice as it does in monkeys and humans. This discovery has led to a better understanding of divergence times in evolution.

    Li also has been influential in showing that the mutation rate in males is higher than in females and has demonstrated this for both higher primates, including humans, and for rodents.

    With the appearance of data from the Human Genome Project, Li and his colleagues have turned their attention to analysis of the detailed structure of the human genome, including the detection of coding regions that have not been detected in any other studies.

    The International Balzan Foundation is a European body based in both Milan, Italy, and Zurich, Switzerland, and is dedicated to recognizing and rewarding outstanding individual achievement-regardless of nationality, race or creed-in science, culture and humanitarian causes through a program of prestigious annual prizes.

    Angela Lina Balzan who, coming into a considerable inheritance on the death of her father, Eugenio Balzan, decided to use the money to honor his memory and so established the foundation in 1956.

    Eugenio Balzan was a leading Italian journalist, managing director and shareholder of the daily newspaper Corriere della Sera. He died in 1953 in Switzerland, after having left Italy in the 1930s in opposition to the fascist pressure on the independent press. Nominations for the prizes are entered from all over the world by the leading learned societies at the foundation’s request. Self-nominations are not accepted. The winners are chosen by the foundation’s general prize committee, which is made up of 18 to 20 European scientists and scholars.

    Once a year, four Balzan prizes are awarded-two in scientific disciplines and two in the humanities, with the categories varying annually. Every three years, the foundation awards a prize for humanity, peace and brotherhood, at a level normally twice that of the individual annual prizes.