Insect sense of smell wins Eppendorf/Science prize

October 15, 2009

Washington, DC - Richard Benton is the 2009 Grand Prize winner in the international competition for The Eppendorf & Science Prize for Neurobiology. He is being recognized for his research on the molecular mechanisms of odor detection in insects.

"We may now be able to target the unusual molecular mechanisms by which insects smell with specific inhibitors," said Benton, assistant professor at the University of Lausanne's Center for Integrative Genomics in Switzerland. "These could have many applications beyond the lab, for example, in controlling the odor-evoked behaviors of insects that transmit human diseases, such as the mosquito vector of malaria."

In his prize-winning essay, Richard Benton explains how his team's discovery of the differences between the insect and mammalian olfactory systems should help shed light on the evolution of both systems. His research first aimed to use fruit flies as models for studying how odorant receptors transform odor recognition into neuronal activity. This goal seemed appropriate at the time, since mammalian and insect odor recognition share some overarching similarities. For example, in both systems, individual sensory neurons express just one type of odorant receptor.

However, Benton and his colleagues soon discovered that Drosophila odorant receptors use an entirely different signaling system than their mammalian counterparts do. The researchers then discovered additional genes that act in insect odor detection, including a whole new family of olfactory receptors. These findings therefore pose the question of how such differences could exist between two systems that also have such broad similarities. Finding the answer will not be easy, but it could shed important light on how this part of the nervous system arose and evolved, Benton writes.

"Our work has uncovered many surprises in how insects smell," said Benton. "These have revealed unanticipated evolutionary parallels between insect chemosensation, immune recognition and synaptic transmission."

"Our findings demonstrate that animal nervous systems can evolve very different solutions to the same problem of sensory detection," he added.

The Eppendorf and Science Prize in Neurobiology recognizes outstanding neurobiological research by a young scientist, as described in a 1,000-word essay based on research performed within the last three years. The grand prize winner receives $25,000 from Eppendorf, and the winner's essay, "Evolution and revolution in odor detection," will be published in the 16 October 2009 issue of the journal Science.

The winner and the finalists will be recognized at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in October in Chicago, Illinois.

2009 Grand Prize Winner

The author of the prize-winning essay, Richard Benton, obtained his Ph.D. in 2003 for research on the molecular basis of cell polarization performed in the group of Daniel St. Johnston at The Wellcome Trust/Cancer Research UK Gurdon Institute at the University of Cambridge. For his postdoctoral training, he joined Leslie Vosshall's laboratory at Rockefeller University, New York, where he became interested in olfactory signaling mechanisms in insects. During his postdoc, he was supported by fellowships from the European Molecular Biology Organisation and the Helen Hay Whitney Foundation. He established his laboratory as assistant professor at the Center for Integrative Genomics at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, in September 2007. In 2008, he was awarded a European Research Council Starting Independent Researcher Grant. His group studies the genetic, neural, and evolutionary basis of chemosensation in the fruit fly, Drosophila.


Max Heiman, for his essay, "The Brain That Nature Built." Heiman learned how to pipette in 1995 as a summer student with Steve Reeves at Massachusetts General Hospital; while there, he wrote Webcutter, one of the earliest online DNA analysis programs. He received a bachelor's degree in biology in 1997 from Yale University, working with Frank Ruddle on homeobox genes in mouse development. As a graduate student with Peter Walter at the University of California San Francisco, he identified the first protein implicated in membrane fusion in yeast mating, a process analogous to sperm/egg fusion, and received his doctorate in biochemistry in 2002. He has been a fellow of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Jane Coffin Childs Memorial Fund. Since 2003, he has conducted postdoctoral work with Shai Shaham at Rockefeller University, using C. elegans to study the assembly of neuronal shapes.

David McLean, for his essay, "Shifting Gears to Change Speeds in the Spinal Cord." McLean was born in Perth, Scotland, but grew up in Canton, New York, USA. He returned to Scotland to study at the University of St. Andrews, where he received his Bachelor of Science degree in biology in 1997 and then his doctorate in neurobiology in 2001 with Keith Sillar. In 2002, he joined Joseph Fetcho's laboratory as a postdoctoral fellow, where he studied the spinal control of locomotor movements. He is now at the Department of Neurobiology and Physiology at Northwestern University, where he continues to pursue his interest in the development and plasticity of motor networks.
For the full text of essays by the winner and the finalists and for information about applying for next year's awards, see Science at American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world's largest general scientific society and publisher of the journal, Science (, Science Signaling (, and Science Translational Medicine ( AAAS was founded in 1848, and serves 262 affiliated societies and academies of science, reaching 10 million individuals. Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world, with an estimated total readership of 1 million. The nonprofit AAAS ( is open to all and fulfills its mission to "advance science and serve society" through initiatives in science policy; international programs; science education; and more. For the latest research news, log onto EurekAlert!,, the premier science-news Web site, a service of AAAS.

Eppendorf AG, headquartered in Hamburg, Germany, is a biotech company which develops, produces and distributes systems for use in life-science research laboratories worldwide, employing more than 2,450 employees. Founded in Hamburg in 1945, the company has subsidiaries in 20 countries and is represented in all other markets by distributors. In fiscal 2008, the company's sales revenues amounted to € 410 million with earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) of € 71.9 million.

American Association for the Advancement of Science

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