A university of Washington professor who helped convince the scientific community that it would be worthwhile ...d feasible —...

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A University of Washington professor who helped convince the scientific community that it would be worthwhile — and feasible — to map the entire human genetic code has won the $500,000 Gruber Prize in genetics, a relatively new honor that has quickly become one of the most prestigious awards in the field.

Professor Maynard Olson was one of the architects of the Human Genome Project, a 13-year, worldwide collaboration that in 2003 finished charting the exact sequence of the more than 3 billion DNA letters in the human genome.

Without Olson’s work, “the human genome would have been an impossible jigsaw puzzle,” the Gruber Foundation said.

With Olson’s award, UW faculty members have won three of the seven Gruber genetics prizes that have been awarded. Their prizes came in three of the past four years.

The prize is issued by the Gruber Foundation, an American philanthropy based in the U.S. Virgin Islands. In addition to genetics, the foundation makes five other annual awards, including ones in cosmology and neuroscience.

Olson, 63, called UW’s success in the Gruber competition “remarkable.”

“There are hundreds of strong scientific institutions around the world doing research on the frontiers of genetics, but UW was a real pioneer in embracing a genome-based view of medicine and biology,” said Olson, a professor of medicine and genome sciences.

All three of UW’s Gruber genetics-prize winners were recruited to Seattle as senior scientists.

Olson came from Washington University in St. Louis, as did 2005 winner Robert Waterson.

Mary-Claire King, who won the Gruber genetics prize in 2004, previously was at the University of California, Berkeley.

Olson said he regards the Gruber as something of a lifetime-achievement award.

He first began studying whole genomes in the mid-1970s as a UW postdoctoral fellow, before genomics was even a field.

Genome sequencing then was slow, laborious and expensive. Olson broke the genomes into manageable pieces, a process he likened to switching from building custom cars to Henry Ford’s assembly line.

Currently, Olson has been focusing on applying genome science to the real world. He is studying how the bacterium that causes respiratory infections in cystic-fibrosis patients changes on a molecular level over the years.

Except with a few viral diseases such as AIDS/HIV, scientists know little about how infectious agents in chronic diseases such as malaria mutate and evolve in the body.

Olson’s research has shown that the bacterium that originally sickens cystic-fibrosis patients is not the same one that eventually kills many of them.

This, Olson said, suggests the patient may need to receive an entirely new antibiotic as the disease progresses.

Kyung Song: 206-464-2423