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Nei Honored with Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal

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Masatoshi Nei, Evan Pugh Professor of Biology and director of the Institute for Molecular Evolutionary Genetics, has been honored by the Genetics Society of America with its Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal. The medal was presented to Nei at the Genetics Society of America’s 2006 Model Organism/Human Biology Meeting. Awarded annually, the Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal recognizes lifetime contributions to the science of genetics.

According to a statement by the society, “Nei has been a major contributor to population and evolutionary genetics theory throughout his career. He is one of a select group to have a statistic named for him: ‘Nei’s genetic distance’ is a cornerstone of population genetic analyses. Masatoshi Nei has played many leading roles in population and evolutionary genetics. He has trained 40 graduate and postdoctoral students, who themselves read like a Who’s Who in the field. In addition to his publications, he and his group have written and distributed software packages, including MEGA for molecular evolutionary genetics analysis and MEP for molecular evolution and phylogenetics.”

Nei has worked with many collaborators in his development of various statistical methods to determine the molecular mechanisms of biological diversity and of evolution. He has constructed a mathematical theory of studying the evolutionary relationships of different species using molecular data. With one of his graduate students, Naruya Saitou, he developed the neighbor-joining method of inferring the evolutionary relationships, known as molecular phylogenies. This method has become the most widely used worldwide for constructing phylogenetic trees.

In his research on mathematical modeling of DNA evolution, Nei devised several statistical methods for estimating the number of changes, or substitutions, that are likely to have occurred in the nucleotide building blocks of the DNA molecule during the evolution. He then applied these methods in his studies of the genes of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), which is involved in immune responses such as the rejection of transplanted organs. Among his discoveries concerning the major histocompatibility complex is that the puzzling diversity of its genes in human populations is due to a special pattern of DNA evolution that occurs when genes protect their hosts from invaders such as viruses and bacteria.

One of the best-known statistical methods developed by Nei, published in American Naturalist in 1972 and discussed further in a paper in Genetics in 1978, is in frequent use by scientists worldwide. The method defines the degree of genetic difference between populations and estimates this genetic distance from molecular data gleaned from DNA and protein molecules. Known as Nei's genetic distance, this measure makes it possible to estimate the origins of populations and the times of their divergence from common ancestors. Nei applied this technique to human populations and obtained the first evidence pointing to the African origins of modern humans. This paper on genetic distance has been listed among the 1000 most-cited papers in all scientific fields.

Nei is the author or co-author of many influential papers and four books, and has served on numerous editorial and review boards in the United States, Japan, and Italy. He also was the cofounder and coeditor of Molecular Biology and Evolution, the leading journal in the field. His work has been recognized with election as an honorary member of the Genetics Society of Japan in 1989, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1990, and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1993. He was elected an honorary member of the Japan Society of Human Genetics in 1996, a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1997, an honorary member of the Japan Society for Histocompatibility and Immunogenetics in 2000, and an honorary member of the Japan Society of Animal Genetics and Breeding in 2001.

Among his numerous honors, awards, and invited lectureships, Nei has received the Japan Society of Human Genetics Award in 1977, the Kihara Prize of the Genetics Society of Japan in 1990, a certificate of award from the Institute for Scientific Information as a "Highly Cited Researcher" in 2000, and an honorary doctoral degree from Miyazaki University in Japan in 2002. Also in 2002, he received the International Prize for Biology from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, presented during a formal ceremony in Tokyo in the presence of the Emperor and Empress of Japan. In 2003, he was awarded the Barbara Bowman Award from the Texas Genetics Society. In addition, the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution established the Masatoshi Nei Annual Lecture in his honor in 2000.

Nei earned a bachelor's degree in genetics at the Miyazaki University of Japan in 1953, and earned a master's degree and a doctoral degree in quantitative genetics at Kyoto University in Japan in 1955 and 1959, respectively. He was an assistant professor at Kyoto University in Japan from 1958 to 1962, a geneticist at the National Institute of Radiological Sciences in Japan from 1962 to 1969, and head of the Population Genetics Laboratory at the National Institute of Radiological Sciences in Japan from 1965 to 1969. He moved to the United States in 1969, where he held the positions of associate professor and professor at Brown University from 1969 to 1972, professor of population genetics at the University of Texas at Houston from 1972 to 1990, where he was acting director of the Center for Demographic and Population Genetics at the University of Texas at Houston from 1979 to 1980 and from 1986 to 1987. Nei joined the Penn State faculty in 1990 as distinguished professor of biology and founding director of the Institute of Molecular Evolutionary Genetics, and was named Evan Pugh Professor of Biology in 1994. He was a visiting professor of biology at Tokyo Institute of Technology in Japan for three months during 2001.

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