Joan A. Steitz, PhD, Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, has donated her portion of the prestigious Wolf Prize—which she received in February 2021—to the Yale Center for RNA Science and Medicine. The $33,000 donation will be used to start a Yale RNA Scholars Program in support of junior RNA scientists.
Yale is renowned for its RNA research. The university is “RNA heaven,” says Karla Neugebauer, PhD, professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry and of cell biology, as well as director of the RNA center. Her colleagues refer to Yale as the “epicenter of RNA.” And Steitz, she continues, has been an incredible contributor to RNA Science and role model at the RNA center for the past five decades.
“She’s an RNA biologist extraordinaire,” Neugebauer says. “The RNA Center at Yale has everything to do with Steitz and her work. She is an important champion of RNA as a molecule.”
Steitz’s early work determined how bacterial ribosomes bind to RNA to initiate protein production. She was the first person to identify this mechanism in the 1960’s. When she started her lab at Yale, she transitioned to studying something much more daunting—mammalian cells. Because these cells have a nucleus, their process of making mRNA is much more complicated. In these cells, long introns—or noncoding pieces of RNA—are present in the middle of the precursor mRNA, which is an RNA copy of the gene.
Her groundbreaking research identified the machinery behind splicing, or the process of excising introns and ligating exons together to enable translation by eukaryotic ribosomes. We now know that a large fraction of human diseases either are caused by mutation in the splicing machinery or have alterations in splicing as important molecular symptoms. Thus, Steitz’s research has transformed the field of RNA biology and helped make possible the COVID-19 vaccine, which is comprised of an mRNA that our cells translate into the immunizing protein.
Steitz received the Wolf Prize through the Wolf Foundation, which awards outstanding scientists and artists for achievements that benefit humanity. It is one of the most prestigious prizes in biomedical science next to the Nobel Prize. To show her gratitude to the Yale biomedical research community that helped her make her most seminal discoveries, Steitz wanted to give back to the RNA Center. “The community of RNA scientists is wonderful,” she says. “It was in large part responsible for things moving as quickly ahead as they have been.”
The center, says Steitz, is the central association at Yale that involves scientists from various disciplines, including Yale College, the School of Medicine, and the School of Public Health, and the interchanges that occur there allow for great progress within the field. In addition to the cutting-edge research being done at the center, both Steitz and Neugebauer say that the most important goal is to promote an inclusive environment where researchers who come to Yale feel at home.
To that end, the Yale RNA Scholars Program that Steitz’ donation will support undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral nominees who show promise in the field of RNA biology. Through recurring scientific and social events, the program will honor the new awardees’ achievements and provide career development opportunities. “Over time, this growing community of Yale RNA Scholars will help foster the scientific excellence, career opportunities, and leadership potential of each awardee through alumni, peer, and faculty support,” says Neugebauer. “The program is in line with Steitz’s extraordinary history of mentoring.”
The success of mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 has garnered massive attention on the significance of this field of research. In addition to vaccines, mRNA has a variety of potential applications. It could, for example, be a strategy to fight cancer or an alternative therapy for tumors. It could also be used in gene therapy to help individuals struggling with genetic disease. Because at least 60%, if not more, of genetic diseases have something to do with RNA going wrong, Steitz explains, it is a very important molecule to study.
“There is a lot of RNA science being done now that will lead to other kinds of solutions for disease,” says Neugebauer.
Steitz, who began her career at Yale in 1970, says she is grateful to be able to do her research in such a supportive environment. “Yale is a great place to do research in general. It’s a very collegial place compared to a lot of other famous universities,” she says. “I want the RNA field to be able to take advantage of that, and one way of moving in that direction is by providing this support.”