Albert Lasker Award
for Special Achievement in Medical Science

Award Presentation by Thomas Maniatis

Thomas Maniatis I am honored to introduce Professor Matthew Meselson, the recipient of the 2004 Albert Lasker Award for Special Achievement in Medical Science. Matt was the mentor of Mark Ptashne, a Lasker Award winner in 1997, who was my mentor. Matt is therefore my scientific grandfather. I have known Matt for over 30 years, and have marveled at his ability to remain at the forefront of science and at the same time serve his country as an advisor at the highest levels of government. His secret is simple—he is incredibly smart. Matt is being recognized for his extraordinary contributions to two different areas of the scientific enterprise: molecular biology and public policy.

In 1958, as a graduate student at Caltech, Meselson conceived the theoretical basis of a technique called equilibrium density gradient centrifugation, and showed that this method could be used to separate macromolecules that differ only slightly in their densities. He and Franklin Stahl then used the method to address the question of how DNA replicates. They designed an experiment so elegant and so decisive it became known as the most beautiful experiment in biology. They showed that DNA duplication produces two identical daughter molecules, each containing one parental and one newly formed strand. This work provided compelling support for Watson and Crick's proposed mechanism of DNA replication and for their double-stranded helical model of DNA.

In 1961, Sydney Brenner and François Jacob, working with Meselson at Caltech, used density gradient centrifugation to establish the existence of messenger RNA, the genetic intermediary between genes and proteins. That same year, Meselson used the method to learn how two DNA molecules produce new ones that contain a mixture of the parents—a process known as genetic recombination.

Later, as a faculty member at Harvard University, Meselson predicted and demonstrated methyl-directed mismatch repair, a process by which mistakes in DNA are corrected, and he was the first to purify a bacterial enzyme that destroys the DNA of invading bacterial viruses. A related group of enzymes turned out to be invaluable for mapping, cloning and sequencing DNA because they cut at defined sequences. The discoverer of that class of restriction enzymes, Hamilton Smith, credited Meselson's earlier work as being the key to his Nobel Prize-winning discovery.

In the past several years, Meselson has been tackling another central question: How does sexual reproduction contribute to evolution? Meselson and his colleagues have provided strong molecular-genetic evidence that an apparently all-female group of tiny aquatic invertebrates has evolved for tens of millions of years without sex—a conclusion that, if true, would put Woody Allen out of business.

During the same time that Meselson made these extraordinary contributions to the understanding of fundamental biological mechanisms, the remainder of his seemingly limitless intellectual energy was directed towards preventing the production and use of biological and chemical weapons. Beginning in 1963, he worked at high levels of government as a scientific advisor. Meselson's effectiveness in this position was based on his ability to approach issues from a strictly scientific basis. Thus he not only understood the efficacy and dangers of biological and chemical weapons, especially to civilians: he also studied the military strategies for their use. He convincingly argued that the United States had no need of these weapons and that its pursuit of them would only stimulate other nations and groups to acquire them. His cogent analysis was influential in persuading President Richard Nixon in 1969 to end the United States biological weapons program, and to renounce biological and toxin weapons.

This same approach led to the resolution of other issues of military and strategic importance. During the Vietnam War, Meselson led an expedition to Vietnam that concluded that the United States' herbicide program was based on the false assumptions that crop destruction could distinguish civilian rice fields from fields maintained by enemy soldiers, and that wide-scale defoliation of the forests was reducing U.S. battlefield casualties.

Meselson's scientific fieldwork also helped solve two contentious puzzles of the Cold War. He investigated the "yellow rain" in Southeast Asia during the 1980s, purportedly a poison that the Laotians and Vietnamese, with Soviet assistance, were spraying on anti-government tribespeople. Meselson traveled to Southeast Asia, where he and his colleagues identified this substance as bee droppings—pollen eaten by the insects, which they then excreted in massive showers. During the 1990s, after earlier attempts to bring independent scientists to the Soviet Union to investigate a controversial anthrax outbreak that took place in 1979, Meselson and his team traveled to Russia and conducted a meticulous epidemiological study that proved the outbreak was caused by an aerosol release from a suspected biological warfare facility.

As you might imagine, all of Matt's accomplishments have led to recognition through awards, lectureships, and even appearances on CNN news. However, I will only mention two of his most notable honors: First, Matt was once listed by a local newspaper as the most eligible bachelor in Boston. They must have been right, considering that a short time later he married the talented and attractive Jeanne Guillemin, who is here with Matt today. Second, although President Nixon was grateful for Matt's advice, Matt was honored by being placed on the Nixon's political enemies list, which includes luminaries such as Mike DeBakey; Derek Bok, the President of Harvard University; and Joe Namath, the New York Jets quarterback. In spite of these two notable honors, I believe that Matt will cherish the Lasker Prize above all, which recognizes his lifelong accomplishments in science and public service.