Dr. Uri Alon Named as ISCB 2004 Overton Prize Winner

The International Society for Computational Biology (ISCB) has announced that Uri Alon, senior scientist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, will receive the 2004 Overton Prize.

"Uri Alon epitomizes the spirit of the Overton Prize. Despite being in a relatively early stage of his career, he has made significant contributions to computational biology, particularly in the areas of network motifs and the design principles of biological networks," said Larry Hunter of the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, chair of the ISCB Awards Committee.

The Overton Prize was established by the ISCB in memory of G. Christian Overton, a major contributor to the field of bioinformatics and member of the ISCB Board of Directors who died unexpectedly in 2000. The prize is awarded for outstanding accomplishment to a scientist in the early- to mid-stage of his or her career who has already made a significant contribution to the field of computational biology through research, education, service, or a combination of the three.

The prize will be awarded at the ISCB's annual meeting, Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology (ISMB) to be held in conjunction with the European Conference on Computational Biology (ECCB), in Glasgow, Scotland, from July 31 to August 4. Alon will deliver the annual Overton keynote lecture, entitled "Design principles of biological networks," at 08:30 on August 4 at this summer's conference.

Alon received his PhD in theoretical physics from the Weizmann Institute, where he studied statistical mechanics and hydrodynamics. During Alon's graduate studies he became intrigued by the biological sciences after reading a biology textbook. Subsequently, he headed for his postdoctoral studies at Princeton determined to learn experimental biology.

"It was like a thriller with miracles on each page!" Alon said. "It was nothing like physics, where matter just sits there--biology is matter that dances, machines that effortlessly self assemble, function perfectly in the noisy chemical soup of the cell, and then dissolve when not needed." He credits Dov Shvarts of the Negev Nuclear Research Center, David Mukamel of The Weizmann Institute, and Stan Leibler of the Rockefeller University for providing significant career guidance and inspiration.

Since 2000, Alon’s lab at Weizmann has studied gene regulation networks experimentally and theoretically, using E. coli and mammalian cell-lines as model systems. His research employs accurate, high temporal-resolution measurement of gene expression from living cells and mathematical modeling to discover the design principles of biological networks. This led to the definition of "network motifs," recurring circuit patterns in biological networks, and experimental demonstration of their information-processing functions.

"Biological networks pose a challenge to science that has never yet been addressed--understanding a system with thousands of heavily interacting components, none of which can be neglected. This at first blush seems impossible," said Alon. "But the fact that these networks evolved to function appears--to us optimists at least--to have a surprising side-effect: it makes their structure understandable to human beings."

"If we manage to understand these networks, and the basic principles that make them tick, it will be the first time science has comprehended a truly complex natural system. This may open up possibilities for understanding complex networks of the type that occur in the tough and crucial sciences of the 21st century, such as ecology and sociology."

Among his most recent publications this year are the “Dynamics of the p53-Mdm2 feedback loop in living cells,” in Nature Genetics and “Super-families of evolved and designed networks,” in Science.