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October 4, 2004

Alumnus Joseph DeRisi wins MacArthur Fellowship

By Tim Stephens

UCSC alumnus Joseph DeRisi, an associate professor of biochemistry and biophysics at UC San Francisco, is among 23 new MacArthur Fellows for 2004 named in September by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Joseph DeRisi Photo courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation

DeRisi, 35, will receive $500,000 in "no strings attached" support over the next five years.

DeRisi, who received his B.S. in biochemistry and molecular biology from UCSC in 1992, is developing the means to measure thousands of genes simultaneously in an effort to decode the mysteries of cellular function. He was recently profiled in the Spring 2004 issue of the UC Santa Cruz Review magazine

The MacArthur Fellows are selected for their originality, creativity, and the potential to do more in the future. DeRisi is the fifth graduate of UCSC to receive the award. The MacArthur Fellows Program places no restrictions on how recipients may use the $500,000, and no reports are required.

"The new MacArthur Fellows illustrate the foundation's conviction that talented individuals, free to follow their insights and instincts, will make a difference in shaping the future," said Jonathan F. Fanton, president of the MacArthur Foundation.

A molecular biologist, DeRisi develops and uses new technologies for exploring the complex, interdependent pathways regulating gene expression. He is extending the impact of recent advances in DNA sequencing by examining not just the population of genes within a cell, but also their interactions that lead to complex behaviors.

DeRisi uses glass slides, carefully prepared with spots of DNA, arranged by robotic devices in a microarray, to make hundreds and even thousands of measurements of individual gene expression from a single experimental sample. His studies on the most common type of malaria parasite have revealed an unusual pattern of synchronized gene activity. This observation suggests that the infectious agent may be particularly sensitive to drugs that disrupt the gene synchronization necessary to move into the next phase of its life cycle.

DeRisi has also demonstrated the power of microarrays for rapid characterization of unknown viral strains; he and colleagues used this method to identify and characterize a novel coronavirus responsible for the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in early 2003. By enhancing methods for bulk measurement of gene activity and applying this technology to questions of vital biological and medical interest, DeRisi demonstrates the vast potential for discoveries in molecular genetics to decode the mysteries of cellular function and to advance the diagnosis and treatment of disease.

After receiving his bachelor's degree from UCSC, DeRisi earned a Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1999. He was a postdoctoral fellow at UCSF before joining the faculty there. His research has been published in such academic journals as Science, Nature Medicine, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, and PLoS Biology.


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