Jennifer Doudna, Saul Perlmutter named 2015 Breakthrough Prize winners

November 10, 2014
By: Robert Sanders
Emmanuelle Charpentier, Jennifer Doudna, and Victor Ambros at of the 2015 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences award ceremony.
Jennifer Doudna (center) with colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier (left), newly named recipients of the 2015 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. Cowinner Victor Ambros is on right. Photo courtesy of Breakthrough Prize.

Two UC Berkeley scientists — structural biologist Jennifer Doudna and physicist Saul Perlmutter — were named 2015 Breakthrough Prize winners in life sciences and physics, respectively, at a star-studded gala in Silicon Valley yesterday (Sunday, Nov. 9).

Doudna and Perlmutter accepted the awards, which come with $3 million each, Sunday from Silicon Valley and Hollywood luminaries, including Benedict Cumberbatch and Cameron Diaz, with songs by Christina Aguilera. The 2015 Breakthrough Prize winners in all three categories — life sciences, physics and mathematics — will be celebrated today (Monday, Nov. 10) in a series of three symposia taking place at Stanford University and streamed live to UC Berkeley from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with social media conversations through the Twitter hashtag #BreakthroughPrize.

The other recipients of the 2015 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences are Doudna’s research colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Helmholtz Center for Infection Research and Umeå University, Alim Louis Benabid of Joseph Fourier University, C. David Allis of The Rockefeller University, Victor Ambros of the University of Massachusetts Medical School and Gary Ruvkun of  Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

Perlmutter received the 2015 Breakthrough Prize in Physics with the two colleagues who shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics with him: Brian P. Schmidt of Australian National University and Adam Riess of Johns Hopkins University and the Space Telescope Science Institute.

Recipients of the 2015 Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics, announced in June, are Simon Donaldson of Stony Brook University and Imperial College, London, Maxim Kontsevich of the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques, Terence Tao of UCLA and Richard Taylor of the Institute for Advanced Study.

Doudna and Charpentier received the award for their discovery of a revolutionary DNA-editing technique that has upended the world of genetics, finally making possible dreams of gene therapy. The prize announcement lauded them “for harnessing an ancient mechanism of bacterial immunity into a powerful and general technology for editing genomes, with wide-ranging implications across biology and medicine.”

Brian Schmidt, Adam Riess and Saul Perllmutter at 2015 Breakthrough Prize award ceremony
Saul Perlmutter (right) accepts the 2015 Breakthrough Prize in Physics with Brian Schmidt (left) & Adam Riess. Photo: Reuters

Perlmutter and his Supernova Cosmology Project team received the award for their co-discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe and dark energy. Riess and Schmidt represented a large team of researchers with the High-Z Supernova Search Team, including UC Berkeley astronomy professor Alex Filippenko, who was also part of the Supernova Cosmology Project. Riess was a Miller postdoctoral fellow working with Filippenko when the cosmological results were announced in 1999.

Doudna, who holds the Li Ka Shing Chancellor’s Chair in Biomedical and Health Sciences, is a professor of molecular and cell biology and chemistry as well as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientist. Perlmutter holds the Franklin W. and Karen Weber Dabby Chair in Physics at UC Berkeley and is a faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The annual Breakthrough Prizes, which include a trophy and $3 million to each laureate in fundamental physics, life sciences and mathematics, are sponsored by Google co-founder Sergey Brin and his wife, Anne Wojcicki, a founder of the genetics company 23andMe; Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma and his wife, Cathy Zhang; Russian entrepreneur and venture capitalist Yuri Milner and his wife, Julia; and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. The goal is to celebrate scientists and generate excitement about the pursuit of science as a career.

The ceremony was produced and directed by Emmy Award-winning Don Mischer Productions and will be simulcast in the United States on Discovery Channel and Science Channel on November 15 at 6 PM ET/PT, and televised globally the weekend of November 22 on BBC World News.