Aziz Sancar: the first Turkish scientist to win a Nobel Prize

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Today, the Nobel Foundation announced that Aziz Sancar shared the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Tomas Lindahl and Paul Modrich.  Sancar was recognized for his work on DNA repair. My heartfelt congratulations to Aziz Sancar!

Author Orhan Pamuk received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006. He was the first Turkish person to receive a Nobel Prize. Aziz Sancar  is the first Turkish scientist to win a Nobel Prize.

Aziz Sancar is currently the Sarah Graham Kenan Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. Tomas Lindahl works at the Francis Crick Institute and Clare Hall Laboratory in Great Britain, and Paul Modrich is at Duke University School of Medicine and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

The most recent work to come out of Sancar’s lab was accomplished earlier this year when his team created a DNA repair map of the entire human genome.

“With this map, we can now say to a fellow scientist, ‘tell us the gene you’re interested in or any spot on the genome, and we’ll tell you how it is repaired,’” Sancar said. “Out of six billion base pairs, pick out a spot and we’ll tell you how it is repaired.”

Today was also a proud day for the University of North Carolina and North Carolina in general because Paul Modrich is affiliated with the Duke University.

William L. Roper, MD, MPH, dean of the UNC School of Medicine, said, “It’s a tremendous honor for Dr. Sancar, this recognition of his amazing scientific accomplishment. And it’s a special day for us as a university because this is the second Nobel Prize awarded to a faculty member of UNC and the School of Medicine.

In 2007, Oliver Smithies, PhD, Weatherspoon Eminent Distinguished Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

“It’s worthy of note that today we share this with colleagues at Duke,” Roper said. “This is a great day for science in the world and science in the Triangle region of North Carolina.”

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Here’s the summary of his work from the Nobel Foundation:

“Aziz Sancar’s fascination with life’s molecules developed while he was studying for a medical degree in Istanbul. After graduating, he worked for a few years as phycisian in the Turkish countryside, but in 1973 he decided to study biochemistry. His interest was piqued by one phenomenon in particular: when bacteria are exposed to deadly doses of UV radiation, they can suddenly recover if they are illuminated with visible blue light. Sancar was curious about this almost magical effect; how did it function chemically? Claud Rupert, an American, had studied this phenomenon and Aziz Sancar joined his laboratory at the University of Texas in Dallas, USA. In 1976, using that time’s blunt tools for molecular biology, he succeeded in cloning the gene for the enzyme that repairs UV-damaged DNA, photolyase, and also in getting bacteria to over-produce the enzyme. This work became a doctoral dissertation, but people were hardly impressed; three applications for postdoc positions resulted in as many rejections. His studies of photolyase had to be shelved. In order to continue working on DNA repair, Aziz Sancar took up a position as laboratory technician at the Yale University School of Medicine, a leading institution in the field. Here he started the work that would eventually result in the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.”

“By then it was clear that bacteria have two systems for repairing UV damage: in addition to light-dependent photolyase, a second system that functions in the dark had been discovered. Aziz Sancar’s new colleagues at Yale had studied this dark system since the mid-1960s, using three UV-sensitive strains of bacteria that carried three different genetic mutations: uvrA, uvrB and uvrC. As in his previous studies of photolyase, Sancar began investigating the molecular machinery of the dark system. Within a few years he had managed to identify, isolate and characterise the enzymes coded by the genes uvrA, uvrB and uvrC. In ground-breaking in vitro experiments he showed that these enzymes can identify a UV-damage, then making two incisions in the DNA strand, one on each side of the damaged part. A fragment of 12-13 nucleotides, including the injury, is then removed.”

“Aziz Sancar’s ability to generate knowledge about the molecular details of the process changed the entire research field. He published his findings in 1983. His achievements led to an offer of an associate professorship in biochemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There, and with the same precision, he mapped the next stages of nucleotide excision repair. In parallel with other researchers, including Tomas Lindahl, Sancar investigated nucleotide excision repair in humans. The molecular machinery that excises UV damage from human DNA is more complex than its bacterial counterpart but, in chemical terms, nucleotide excision repair functions similarly in all organisms. So, what happened to Sancar’s initial interest in photolyase? Well, he eventually returned to this enzyme, uncovering the mechanism responsible for reviving the bacteria. In addition, he helped to demonstrate that a human equivalent to photolyase helps us set the circadian clock.”

The scientific summary of Aziz Sancar’s work can be found in this Nobel document and also at his web site. The Nobel Foundation has also this more readable document.

Aziz Sancar is married to Gwen Boles Sancar who is also a Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Together, they founded Carolina Turk Evi, a permanent Turkish Center in close proximity to the campus of UNC-CH, which provides graduate housing for four Turkish researchers at UNC-CH, short term guest services for Turkish visiting scholars, and a center for promoting Turkish-American interchange. http://carolinaturkevi.org/index.htm

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The NYT article

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/08/science/tomas-lindahl-paul-modrich-aziz-sancarn-nobel-chemistry.html?_r=0

The NYT Video

http://www.nytimes.com/video/multimedia/100000003963964/turkish-born-aziz-sancar-reacts-to-news-of-nobel-win.html

The profile of Aziz Sancar at PNAS written by Nick Zagorski

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1283445/

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About Suresh Emre

I have worked as a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the Superconducting Super Collider Laboratory. I am a volunteer for the Renaissance Universal movement. My main goal is to inspire the reader to engage in Self-discovery and expansion of consciousness.
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