Top-Tier Work Earns UH Biologist Prestigious Humboldt Prize

Dan Graur Honored for Career Achievements in Evolution, Genomics Work

Dan GraurUniversity of Houston biologist Dan Graur, who has dedicated his professional life to basic research in genomics, bioinformatics and evolution, recently won the prestigious Humboldt Research Award for life achievements.

The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, a German institute that supports scientific research and awards highly coveted fellowships and prizes, annually recognizes a variety of scientific disciplines. Graur won the award in evolutionary biology and will receive 60,000 euros, which is currently the equivalent of more than $80,000. He will be honored in a presentation ceremony in June during the foundation’s annual meeting in Berlin, where the president of Germany also will make an appearance.

A leader in the study of mutation and other molecular evolutionary processes, Graur is a John and Rebecca Moores Professor in the department of biology and biochemistry. Of the 84 awards given worldwide in 2010, he was one of four recipients in Texas and the only one from Houston. Acknowledged for fundamental discoveries, new theories and insights that have had a significant impact in his field, as a Humboltian, Graur is expected to continue producing cutting-edge achievements into the future.

“Receiving such a prestigious international award underscores Dan Graur’s prominence in the field of evolutionary biology,” said Mark Smith, dean of UH’s College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. “This news is more than just a major career milestone for Professor Graur – it demonstrates the growing recognition within the scientific community that UH is a world-class center for research and education.”

A key focus of Graur’s research has been the process of mutation. Because of selection, some mutations survive and others die out – but an organism’s genome contains vast parts that are untouched by selections, and all mutations have an equal probability of surviving in these regions. By analyzing pseudogenes – or genes that have died – biologists can discern a kind of fossil record of an organism’s long history of mutations. By isolating the mutation phenomena apart from selection, scientists can start to make sense of a seemingly random process, detecting patterns in mutations and statistically predicting future mutations. Such knowledge that comes from this basic research could be crucial in devising flu vaccines that better anticipate virus mutations.

As a computational biologist, Graur’s research also focuses on devising methodologies for analyzing the vast amounts of molecular data that are being produced around the world. He says a genome is like a huge manuscript written in a foreign language, whose grammar, syntax and vocabulary are largely unknown. Scientists need methods for sifting through millions of sequences of this seemingly random genetic text to identify the functional parts and what they do. Because of his work on compositional properties of genomes, Graur has been involved in many genome projects, such as sea urchin, cow, honeybee, body louse, flour beetle, two species of parasitic wasps and three ant species.

“I am a strong believer in long-term basic research driven by curiosity and the realization that our understanding of the basic principles of nature is meager,” Graur said. “I hope that UH will continue to maintain the primacy of basic research over applied research, for the former can exist without the latter, but the latter is doomed without the former.”

Receiving his undergraduate and master’s degrees from Tel Aviv University and a doctorate in genetics from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, Graur’s contributions to the field are not limited to research. Graur is the co-author of the most popular textbook in molecular evolution and also a graphic artist. He designed the covers of every edition of the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.

“Dan’s strength as a scientist comes not only from his keen intellect and his ‘big picture’ view of the world, but also from his creative ability that is constantly challenging the way he thinks about problems,” said Dan Wells, chair and professor for the biology and biochemistry department. “This is a great honor, not only for Dan, but also for our department and the entire university. I firmly believe that this is just the tip of iceberg and that Dan will continue to receive many such national and international awards. We are all very proud of him.”

As part of their selection, Humboldt award winners are invited to spend a period of up to one year cooperating on a long-term research project with colleagues in their specialties at a German research institution. Graur’s collaboration will be at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf with William Martin and Tal Dagan of the Institute of Botany III. They will work together on a genomic study aimed at identifying the root of the tree of life, which is the oldest divergence event in evolutionary history, occurring about 3.5 billion years ago.

- Lisa Merkl, University Communication