Neurobiologists Lily Jan, PhD '74, and Yuh Nung Jan, PhD '75, Receive Neuroscience Prize

Lily Jan, PhD, and Yuh Nung Jan, PhD, of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the University of California, San Francisco, will jointly receive the 2012 Neuroscience Prize of The Gruber Foundation. They are being recognized for their fundamental contributions to the field of molecular neurobiology, particularly their pioneering work on how potassium channels control brain cell activity and on how brain cells diversify and specialize during embryonic development.

 The Jans have mentored and inspired a large number of students and postdoctoral fellows, many of whom now serve as faculty at major universities and research institutions in the United States and throughout the world. They will receive the award October 14 in New Orleans at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and will deliver a lecture titled “In search of molecular underpinnings of neuronal morphologies and function: from Drosophila neurogenetics to evolutionarily conserved machineries in mammals."

“The Jans’ discoveries of fundamental mechanisms of potassium channel function in health and disease, combined with their genetic dissection of dendritic development in animals has built a scaffold for understanding the intricacies of neuron development and function,” says Carol Barnes, chair of the Selection Advisory Board to the Neuroscience Prize.

Lily Jan and Yuh Nung Jan began to collaborate on their research soon after they finished graduate school in 1974. They were mentored by the molecular biologist Max Delbrück while completing their PhDs in biophysics and physics at the California Institute of Technology. After postdoctoral training with Seymour Benzer and Steve Kuffler, they established their own laboratories at the University of California, San Francisco, in 1979. The Jans’ numerous and diverse scientific achievements fall into several areas of molecular neurobiology. They were among the first to demonstrate that molecules known as peptides can act as neurotransmitters, or chemicals that transfer messages from one neuron to another. That landmark finding has led scientists to identify dozens of other peptide neurotransmitters, whose properties and function are now actively studied for their role in health and disease.

The Jans have also been pioneers in the study of potassium channels, which are pores on the membranes of nerve cells that serve as gatekeepers for charged atoms (potassium ions) as they flow in and out of the cells.They discovered that potassium channel abnormalities were responsible for the atypical limb movements of a mutant strain of fruit flies known as “Shaker. ” In 1987, they reported (in another landmark paper) the cloning of the Shaker gene—the first successful cloning of a gene for a potassium ion channel. Since then, dozens of human genes encoding various potassium ion channels have been cloned, and mutations in these genes have been linked to a variety of diseases. The Jans have contributed to many important advances in this field.

In addition to their seminal work on potassium channels, the Jans have made significant discoveries in the field of developmental neuroscience. They have helped describe various aspects of embryonic brain development, including how neurons use certain proteins to acquire their identity; how the division of a single neuralprogenitor cell can generate two dissimilar “daughter” cells, thus ensuring cellular diversity in the mature brain; and how neurons develop dendrites, the branched extension of neurons that receive and integrate sensory inputs and signals from nearby neurons.