College of Natural Resources, UC Berkeley

Professor Awarded Prestigious Overton Prize in Computational Biology

June 25, 2010

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Professor Steven E. Brenner has been awarded the International Society for Computational Biology (ISCB) Overton Prize. The Overton Prize honors early- to mid-career scientists who have achieved a significant and lasting impact in bioinformatics and/or computational biology.

Brenner has contributed to the understanding of genomes, and to protein and RNA function. His most important contribution to the RNA field was the discovery of the prevalence of RNA surveillance and alternative splicing as a novel mode of gene regulation. He continues to work in this area and has extended his work in RNA regulation as a member of the modENCODE consortium, which aims to identify all the functional sequence elements in the Drosophila and Caenorhabditis elegans genomes.

Outside pure research, Brenner has contributed to the computational biology community at large. He served as an ISCB director from 1998 to 2000 and again from 2002 to 2006. As a dedicated advocate of the open-access and open-source movement, he was one of the founders of the BioPerl open-source software project. Later, he became a director of the Open Bioinformatics Foundation, which aims to put the creation of open-source software libraries such as BioPerl on a secure financial footing. And he is a founding editor of PLoS Computational Biology, the first open-access journal focused on advancing the understanding of living systems through the application of computational methods.
Brenner remembers being interested in computers and biology even as a small boy. But, rather than having a dual major, he chose the flexibility of Biochemical Sciences for his undergraduate studies at Harvard, and followed his advisor's encouragement to take computer science courses as well. As an undergraduate, he was able to work in Walter Gilbert's lab, “maybe the very first genome lab in the world.” Gilbert and his colleagues were sequencing the genome of the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium. While in Gilbert's lab, Brenner met colleagues who introduced him to the idea of combining both his interests into the study of computational biology.

After graduation, Brenner obtained a fellowship for graduate study at the University of Cambridge, and studied for his PhD in the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology under Cyrus Chothia. As one of the original authors of the SCOP: Structural Classification of Proteins database, Brenner presented it at the second ISMB meeting in 1994. While initially having an uncertain reception, SCOP has since been cited over 4,000 times and remains widely used today.

After leaving Cambridge, Brenner obtained a fellowship to the National Institute of Bioscience, Japan, to work on genome analysis, but he was soon back in the US as a postdoctoral research fellow in Michael Levitt's lab at Stanford University. In Levitt's lab, he continued to work on genome and protein sequence analysis and the detection of distant evolutionary relationships between proteins.

In 2000, Brenner moved to the University of California, Berkeley, as an assistant professor, and became a faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that same year. In 2009 he was appointed as an adjunct professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and is promoted to full professorship at UC Berkeley this year. His lab now includes experimental as well as computational biologists.

The Overton Prize is given in memory of G. Christian Overton, a young bioinformatics researcher and ISCB director who died suddenly in 2000.

More on this story is featured on the Public Library of Science (PLoS) website.

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