Award-Winning Geneticist to Discuss ‘The Awesome Power of Yeast’

May 09, 2006

Fred Sherman, Ph.D., will discuss his 50 years of research using yeast to extend biomedical knowledge in the latest installment of a lecture series highlighting biological and biomedical research at the University of Rochester.

Sherman will speak about yeast genetics at 4 p.m. Friday, May 12, in the Case Methods Room (Room 1-9576) of the Medical Center. It’s the third lecture in a seminar series geared mainly to faculty, staff and students at the University, though the general public is welcome as well. The lectures are free.

Sherman’s talk comes in a year that has brought three major research awards in recognition of his groundbreaking work with yeast. This summer he will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Yeast Genetics and Molecular Biology meeting. Earlier this year he received the George W. Beadle Award from the Genetics Society of America and was honored as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

As a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley more than five decades ago, Sherman took on the task of studying the biological effects of radiation. He and his adviser agreed that yeast would be a wise choice for study, and he was instructed to collect samples of viruses that affect yeast. Colleagues informed him that a great source of such viruses would be the droppings from tropical birds. So Sherman headed to the local zoo and collected the droppings that launched his illustrious career as a geneticist who uses yeast to learn about life’s most basic processes.

Thanks largely to Sherman, yeast is now part of the pantheon of organisms, along with bacteria, fruit flies, worms and mice, that provide testing grounds for scientists to ask the most basic questions about life. Scientists learned many of their tools of molecular biology by working with yeast, which share thousands of genes with people and other organisms. Scientists first determined the function of many genes in yeast, and the information can be directly applied to human health – for instance, work on yeast at the University by Sherman’s former student, David Pearce, Ph.D., has led directly to a potentially new way to treat a devastating childhood disease known as Batten disease.

It was in yeast that scientists like Sherman first worked out the different stages that cells go through as they divide and multiply. Scientists used the organism to perfect the art of knocking out a gene, then restoring its function to learn more about what it does. And since yeast reproduce and double ever 90 minutes, genetic changes can be assessed rapidly, literally saving decades of work compared to tracking the same developments in people.

Sherman is widely known for training scores of scientists on the finer points of working with yeast and for fostering a community of researchers who share resources and knowledge freely. From 1970 to 1987 he ran with Gerald Fink an annual summer class at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, working with both young and established scientists to make them technically proficient at making the most of unlocking the secrets held by yeast. He’d push his students in the daytime, then lead them to a local tavern for a festive night of dancing to break up the tension.

Sherman, a Wilson Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics, joined the University faculty in 1961. In 1985 he was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

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