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Kyoto Prize Awarded to Penn State's Masatoshi Nei

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25 June 2013

Masatoshi NeiMasatoshi Nei, Evan Pugh Professor of Biology and director of the Institute for Molecular Evolutionary Genetics at Penn State University, has been honored as the recipient of the 2013 Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences. The international award is presented by the Inamori Foundation to individuals who have contributed significantly to the progress of science, the advancement of civilization, and the enrichment and elevation of the human spirit. The foundation honored Nei in recognition of his "research on the evolution of biological populations using quantitative analyses of genetic variation and evolutionary time."

In announcing the award, the foundation stated, "Dr. Masatoshi Nei made it possible to discuss evolutionary divergence, genetic diversity, and the mode of selection on genes in a quantitative manner by devising diverse statistical methods such as Nei's genetic distance, and applying them to molecular data. Using these methods, Dr. Nei's research has yielded important contributions to molecular evolutionary biology, as well as to many other academic disciplines including ecology and conservation biology." The award, which includes a diploma, a monetary prize, and a gold medal, will be bestowed upon Nei during the Kyoto Prize Presentation Ceremony in Kyoto, Japan, in November 2013.

Nei has received many other awards throughout his career. In 2006, he was honored by the Genetics Society of America with its Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal. In 2003, he was awarded the Barbara Bowman Award from the Texas Genetics Society. He was awarded an honorary doctoral degree from Miyazaki University in Japan in 2002 and, in that same year, he received the International Prize for Biology from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. He received a certificate of award from the Institute for Scientific Information as a "Highly Cited Researcher" in 2000, and the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution established the Masatoshi Nei Annual Lecture in his honor in that same year. Nei received the Kihara Prize of the Genetics Society of Japan in 1990 and the Japan Society of Human Genetics Award in 1977.

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 for studying the evolutionary relationships of different species using molecular data. A statistic named for him, Nei's genetic distance, is a cornerstone of population genetic analyses. 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. However, a more influential paper is about the proposal of the "neighbor-joining" method of constructing phylogenetic trees. It is one of the most highly cited papers in the entire field of biology, and the number of citations is about 33,000 times by now. He also developed several new evolutionary concepts such as "birth-and-death evolution of multigene families" and "mutation-driven evolution." In addition to his publications, Nei and his group have written and distributed software packages, including MEGA for molecular evolutionary genetics analysis which is the most widely used software for phylogenetic analysis at present.

Nei is the author or co-author of many influential papers and six 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.

Nei earned a bachelor's degree in genetics at the Miyazaki University of Japan in 1953, and he 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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