Yale’s Steitz honored for pioneering work in RNA biology

Yale’s Steitz is among three researchers recognized for work which led to the creation of RNA-based COVID-19 vaccines.
Joan Steitz

Joan Steitz (Photo credit: Robert A. Lisak)

Joan Steitz, Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale and investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, this month was awarded a prestigious Wolf Prize in Medicine for her pioneering work advancing the field of RNA biology.

Steitz, along with Lynne Maquat of the University of Rochester and Adrian Krainer of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, was honored for “fundamental discoveries… that have the potential to better human lives,” the Wolf Foundation announced.

Since 1978, the Wolf Foundation has awarded the Wolf Prize to outstanding scientists and artists from across the world whose achievements benefit humankind and friendly relations among peoples. The prize’s scientific categories include medicine, agriculture, mathematics, chemistry, and physics.

Steitz, who has studied RNAs since the 1960s, discovered that they play a much greater role in biology than simply ferrying instructions encoded in DNA to the cell’s protein-making machinery. She and others revealed the crucial biological role played by small pieces of RNA that do not code for proteins.

For instance, in the 1980s Steitz’ Yale lab discovered that tiny snippets of RNA bound by proteins called small nuclear ribonucleoproteins (snRNPs) play a central role in splicing, a key step in the expression of genes. This finding helped fuel an explosion of knowledge about the key roles played by small non-coding RNAs in a host of biological functions and disease.

Steitz, Maquat, and Krainer “have made ground-breaking discoveries in RNA regulatory mechanisms demonstrating that RNA is not a passive template between DNA and protein, but rather plays a dominant role in regulating and diversifying gene expression,” the Wolf Prize announcement states.

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