University of Chicago scientist wins prestigious Balzan Prize

Sept. 16, 2003

Wen-Hsiung Li, Ph.D., the George Wells Beadle Distinguished Service Professor in the department of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, has been awarded the prestigious Balzan Prize in genetics and evolution by the International Balzan Foundation.

The $709,000 award is often referred to as the "Italian Nobel." Li is one of four people worldwide to receive a Balzan Prize this year for contributions to science and humanities. The three other 2003 prizewinners were British historian Eric Hobsbawm, French psychologist Serge Moscovici, and German astronomer Reinhard Genzel.

"The past awardees in genetics and evolution were giants in my field," Li said, "so, it was a big surprise to me when I received the notice from the president of the Balzan Foundation."

The $709,000 award is often referred to as the "Italian Nobel."

"Wen-Hsiung Li has made seminal contributions to the field of evolutionary molecular genetics," according to the foundation, which is based in Milan, Italy. "He has developed widely used methods for inferring phylogenetic relationships and has made important discoveries about the rate of genetic change in different groups of animals.

"The recent completion of the mapping of the human genome placed Li among the top scholars who could analyze evolutionary molecular genetics," the foundation said.

The 2003 award-giving ceremony will take place in Berne, Switzerland, on Friday, Nov. 7, in the Federal Parliament Buildings.

Wen-Hsiung Li

Li graduated from Chung Yuan College of Sciences and Engineering in Taiwan, where he majored in civil engineering. He earned a master's degree in geophysics from National Central University before coming to the United States to study at Brown University, where he earned a Ph.D. in applied mathematics in 1972.

Li has developed and applied mathematical techniques to a very wide range of problems and his methods are amongst the most generally used in the field.

With the explosion of DNA sequence data since the 1980s, he has been the architect of methods for inferring evolutionary relationships from comparison of DNA sequences. He was particularly influential in establishing methods for estimating the degree of accuracy of evolutionary trees and the statistical confidence that can be placed in them.

One key to the interpretation of DNA data is the assumption that changes in DNA data place at a constant rate through evolutionary time (the so-called "molecular clock"). This assumption is used to pinpoint the time of divergence of evolutionary lineages.

Li was the first to show, in the 1980s, that the clock runs at a speed dependent on generation time: the shorter the generation, the faster the clock. So, for example, the clock runs five times as fast in rats and mice as in monkeys and man. This discovery has led to a better understanding of divergence times in evolution.

He has also been influential in showing that the mutation rate in males is higher than that in females. He has demonstrated this for higher primates including humans as well as for rodents.

With the appearance of data from the Human Genome Project, Li and his colleagues have turned their attention to analysis of the detailed structure of the human genome, including the detection of coding regions that have not been detected in any other studies.

The Balzan Foundation

The International Balzan Foundation is a European body dedicated to recognizing and rewarding outstanding individual achievement--regardless of nationality, race or creed--in science, culture and humanitarian causes through a program of prestigious annual prizes.

The foundation was set up in 1956 by Angela Lina Balzan who, coming into a considerable inheritance on the death of her father, Eugenio Balzan, decided to use the money to honor his memory.

Eugenio Balzan was a leading Italian journalist, managing director and shareholder of the daily newspaper Corriere della Sera. He died in 1953 in Switzerland after having left Italy in the 1930s in opposition to the fascist pressure on the independent press.

Nominations for the prizes are entered from all over the world by the leading learned societies at the foundation's request. Self-nominations are not accepted. The winners are chosen by the foundation's general prize committee, which is made up of 18-20 members, all European scientists and academics.

Once a year, four Balzan prizes are awarded--two in scientific disciplines and two in the humanities. The categories vary annually. Every three years, the foundation awards a prize for humanity, peace and brotherhood, at a level normally twice that of the individual annual prizes.

Earlier winners include Pope John XXIII, the composers Paul Hindemith and György Ligeti, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

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