December 11, 2008
Vol. 28 No. 6

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    Systems biologist, geneticist make notable ‘Under 40’ lists

    By John Easton
    Medical Center Communications

    Jonathan Pritchard

    The 40-hour workweek, remember that? Break it up with 40 winks. Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. Forty acres and a mule. Stuck in a rut? WD-40. Zirconium’s atomic number. The only number in English in which the letters are in alphabetical order.

    Life begins at 40.

    For a fortunate, capable few, life gets rolling sooner. Two of them, Kevin White and Jonathan Pritchard, both 37 and members of the Department of Human Genetics, have been singled out for getting ahead of the numbers.

    The Monday, Nov. 3 issue of Crain’s Chicago Business named White as one of its “40 Under 40,” its annual snapshot of the area’s up-and comers. He was the only person on this year’s list from an academic setting.

    A pioneer in combining experimental and computational techniques to understand the networks of factors that control gene expression during development and evolution, White came to Chicago from Yale University in 2006, as a professor in Human Genetics and Ecology & Evolution. He also is Director of the Institute for Genomic & Systems Biology.

    Kevin White

    Since arriving, he has attracted two substantial research grants from the National Institutes of Health. One, for $9.1 million, is to identify all the DNA regulatory elements that control when and where genes get turned on or off in the fruit fly genome. The other, $15 million from the NIH plus $3 million from the Chicago Biomedical Consortium, with support from The Searle Funds at The Chicago Community Trust, enabled him to establish the Chicago Center for Systems Biology at the University and Argonne National Laboratory. The center researchers will study how networks of genes work together to enable cells and organisms to respond to change.

    The other young overachiever, Pritchard, was selected by Discover Magazine as one of “20 Under 40,” a subset of the magazine’s article on the “50 Best Brains in Science.”

    In its December issue, the editors of Discover sought out individuals who are “making the most important contributions to American science,” the article begins. The magazine organized a team of researchers to seek out the best of the best. Twenty of the scientists they found were featured in a special section on those under 40, “the young visionaries who are transforming their fields.”

    Pritchard, Professor in Human Genetics and an investigator in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, came to the University from a post-doctoral fellowship at Oxford in 2001. He studies the links between genetic variation and the evolution of human traits.

    In 2006, Pritchard and colleagues described the identification of several hundred DNA regions in various human populations that show signals of recent selection. Included within those regions are genes that influence reproduction, olfaction, skin pigmentation, skeletal development and degradation of environmental toxins.

    Using more extensive data that have recently become available, his group has been examining the relative roles of chance and selection in favoring these genes.