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Two University of Illinois researchers named HHMI investigators

5/27/2008

Diana Yates, Life Sciences Editor
217-333-5802; diya@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Two University of Illinois researchers, Phillip A. Newmark, a professor of cell and developmental biology, and Wilfred A. van der Donk, the William H. and Janet Lycan professor of chemistry, have been named Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigators.

Newmark and van der Donk are among 56 biomedical scientists chosen from among 1,070 applications submitted in a nationwide competition. The 2008 investigators were selected for their ability to bring “new and innovative ways of thinking about biology to the HHMI community,” said Thomas R. Cech, the president of the institute.

The Maryland-based institute is a private philanthropy dedicated to supporting biomedical research and science education. It is committing more than $600 million to support new research conducted by the 56 investigators in their first term of appointment.

Two other U. of I. faculty members have received HHMI awards. Chemistry professor Yi Lu was named an HHMI professor in 2002, and physics professor Taekjip Ha became an HHMI investigator in 2005. The campus has received numerous educational grants from the institute, beginning in 1993.

Phillip Newmark
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Phillip A. Newmark

Newmark long has been fascinated by the freshwater planarian, a flatworm that has remarkable powers of regeneration. Cut it into numerous pieces and each piece will regenerate missing body parts, including brains, digestive organs and in most cases, reproductive organs.

According to those making the award, Newmark has been “instrumental in establishing planarians as a model system for studying regeneration at the molecular level. … (He) is exploring a central question that has long intrigued biologists – what are the signals or cues that tell a cell to become a germ cell? He hopes to answer that question by studying the ways planarians develop and regenerate their germ cells.”

“The department is delighted and proud of Dr. Newmark’s selection as an HHMI investigator,” said cell and developmental biology professor and department head Andrew Belmont. “The vast majority of scientists devote their careers to making steady but incremental progress on previously established lines of research. In contrast, a very select, very small group of scientists instead pioneer completely new approaches and methodologies, which then serve a much broader community.”

“Dr. Newmark falls into the latter class of scientists, and it is tremendously satisfying to see the HHMI reward him for his vision, risk-taking and hard work,” Belmont said.

Belmont noted that Newmark has worked since his days as a postdoctoral fellow to turn planarians into a modern biological model organism.

“He and his colleagues are now well on their way toward this goal – capturing the enthusiasm of a broader community of developmental biologists who have embraced the potential of this model system for studying fundamental questions related to regeneration and stem-cell biology.  We are all excited as we anticipate his laboratory’s future progress in these fields that will now be greatly facilitated by HHMI funding,” Belmont said.

Newmark was one of five recipients nationwide of the 2003 Damon Runyon Scholar Award and he received a 2003 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation. He is a faculty member of the Neuroscience Program and an affiliate of the Institute for Genomic Biology.

Wilfred van der Donk
Wilfred A. van der Donk

As an HHMI investigator, van der Donk will work to identify and exploit new classes of compounds that have potential as antibiotics. He studies microbial agents that have antibiotic properties but which have so far not been developed for therapeutic use in humans. He will also make use of rich data sources, such as genome databases, to search for promising compounds.

Van der Donk is a co-principal investigator on a team of researchers at Illinois and the University of Wisconsin that last year received a five-year, $7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to discover, engineer and produce a class of antibiotic agents.

Van der Donk also is a member of a related research theme at the Institute for Genomic Biology: Mining Microbial Genomes for Novel Antibiotics.

“Although he’s intensely focused on this fundamental research, which he calls an arms race with the microbes, van der Donk is equally committed to inspiring students – in both the classroom and the laboratory – to become excited about science,” HHMI officials wrote in announcing the award.

“Wilfred van der Donk is one of the country’s leading chemical biologists,” said Illinois chemistry department head Steven Zimmerman. “He combines a sharp eye for critical problems with a deeply analytical and creative mind that produces unique solutions. The HHMI award will give him the freedom to tackle some very important and challenging problems already under way in his laboratory, such as developing new antibiotics to treat drug-resistant infections.”

“He will also be able to initiate new projects in the area of cell biology, with one project potentially offering new insights into the malaria life cycle in human cells,” Zimmerman said. “Wilfred is all around an outstanding teacher, scholar and colleague – always ready to help and with outstanding judgment and standards.”

The HHMI supports the scientists themselves rather than focusing on a particular line of research. This gives HHMI investigators the freedom to explore and, if necessary, change the direction of their research. The multi-year support also allows them to follow their ideas through to fruition – even if it takes them many years.

Editor’s note: To reach Phillip Newmark, call 217-244-4674; e-mail: pnewmark@illinois.edu.

To reach Wilfred van der Donk, 217-244-5360; vddonk@illinois.edu.

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