Cutting-Edge Science Honored by Star-Studded Breakthrough Prize Awards

Some $3 million in prizes are being given out to recognize excellence in astronomy, life sciences, and other fields.

Watch the live broadcast of the awards here, or tune in to National Geographic Channel at 10 ET/7 PT.

Maps of the infant universe and understanding the proteins involved in neurological disease are among the scientific achievements honored by this year’s Breakthrough Prizes in fundamental physics, life sciences, and mathematics. Announced Sunday and presented during a star-studded award ceremony at NASA’s Ames Research Center, the Breakthrough Prizes bestow $3 million upon the winners. It’s the largest purse offered in the world of science prizes.

"Science is not merely a topic in a textbook," actor Morgan Freeman said during the award ceremony. "Science is a way of thinking ...powerful, but fragile."

Using Plants to Save the Planet

That prize money comes with no strings attached, and while not everyone is sure what they’ll do with it, at least one of this year’s winners—Joanne Chory—has a plan.

Chory studies plants, and if you know anything about ecology and how life on Earth works, it’s that these primary producers are crucial for our survival. Without them, we wouldn’t exist. And as the planet’s climate warms, both plants and people are going to suffer.

Nearly three decades ago, she started piecing together the biochemical pathways that govern how plants respond to sunlight. Scientists knew that photons striking a plant’s leaves triggered a cascade that ultimately resulted in sugar production, but no one knew exactly how that trigger worked. By studying a bunch of mutant plants—of the species Arabidopsis thaliana—Chory identified which genes are responsible for that process, and for a plant’s remarkable flexibility.

“Plants are rooted in the ground, they have to constantly adapt their growth, their sizes and shapes to an ever-changing environment, and they’re doing that because they want to optimize photosynthesis,” she says.

Now, she and her colleagues at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies are hoping to create strains of legumes (probably lentils and chickpeas) that can pull massive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, tuck it into a protein, and shove it in the soil.

“We want to help plants do better at sequestering carbon and then burying it in the ground,” Chory says. “It’s our way of dealing with the whole CO2 problem, which causes global warming, which causes climate change and wreaks havoc on the whole planet.”

And of course, these particular legumes will not only fix nitrogen and leave soils in better shape—they’ll also support a growing human population.

“We have to feed a world of 12 billion people by the end of the century,” she says.

Inspiration in the Mountains

This year’s winners are also studded with scientists whose lives have been adventurous outside of the lab.

One of them, Oxford University’s Kim Nasmyth, borrowed some inspiration from his exploits in the mountains. Nasmyth’s prize is for figuring out how the DNA packed into cells is faithfully replicated and separated when cells divide into two—which is crucial for preventing such problems as cancer and chromosomal abnormalities.

Learn about past winners in the Breakthrough Awards.

“It’s one of the most dramatic events in the life of the cell,” he says. “You’ve got to make sure the chromosomes are fully replicated before you go ahead with this step, and they’ve got to be all lined up. Once you’ve disjoined them, there’s no way they can be used to repair each other—it’s sort of an irrevocable event.”

The key to that proper division of genetic material, which Nasmyth worked out more than a decade ago, is a ring-shaped protein called cohesin. After strands of DNA are replicated, cohesin binds them together until it’s time for those sisters to split and move into separate cells; a protein called separase breaks the cohesin bridges linking sister strands.

“That’s ultimately what triggers chromosome segregation, and ultimately cell division,” he says.

Right around the time he was doing this work, Nasmyth and a friend were climbing in Italy’s Dolomites. They tackled a multi-pitch route on the Marmolada—and ended up having to unexpectedly bivvy there overnight. “It turned into a bit of an epic,” he says.

Once down, Nasmyth stared at the seeming impossibly tangled pile of ropes and climbing gear and thought, hey, maybe cohesin and DNA act kind of like a rope and carabiner, with the DNA sliding through the ring-shaped protein? Now, Nasmyth knows that analogy is quite apt—and that cohesin also plays a huge role in organizing strands of genetic material.

“That certainly gave me a level of intuition about it that I otherwise would not have had,” Nasmyth says.

From Sea to Sky

And Lyman Page, a Princeton University physicist, has not only sailed figuratively through the cosmos—he’s an architect of the prize-winning project that mapped the early universe—he has also sailed the seas on Earth.

For more than two years after undergrad, Page lived mostly at sea. He bought a boat, fixed it up, and sailed it from Maine, to Florida, to the Caribbean, and then to Panama. His goal? Ultimately, the South Pacific.

But, “the boat was always breaking, we were always fixing things, getting jobs—really hustling to get jobs,” Page says. When the boat’s steering failed a second time, about 80 miles off the Venezuelan coast, and then the jib ripped in half, Page figured it was time to return to land.

“That was the night I remember thinking, OK it’s time to go to grad school,” he says.

Breakthrough is honoring Page and 26 of his colleagues for their work with the WMAP project, which ended up putting together an image of the cosmic microwave background, which is the oldest light in the universe. Over the last decade or so, that image has proven to be fundamental for our understanding of cosmology—it has shown us how old the universe is (13.77 billion years), what it’s made of, how curved it is, and constrained various cosmological parameters to an incredibly precise degree.

“The number of possible models of the universe that you just have to discard is enormous,” says Page. “Huge mysteries remain, but they’ve got a framework in which they can be answered. It’s not something nebulous.”

Speaking Various Languages

And then there are slightly more esoteric exploits: Mathematician James McKernan and his colleague Christopher Hacon used the language of numbers—specifically birational algebraic geometry—to describe how multidimensional shapes can be projected into fewer dimensions. “It’s a problem that has a very long history, goes back to the Greeks,” McKernan says, who’s at UC San Diego.

It’s easiest to think about this in terms of projecting 3-D images onto 2-D media—like what happens when you draw a picture—or the cross-sectional shapes you might get if you sliced an orange or a cone into pieces. But McKernan and Hacon discovered the rules for how this works even if you start with a shape having more than a thousand dimensions.

Because sometimes, the things human brains can’t even conceive of are best described by the language of math—and solving mathematical riddles is a worthy achievement even if the practical applications might be scarce. McKernan is glad the Breakthrough team sees the value of pure research.

“It is always the right time to celebrate great scientists,” says Internet investor Yuri Milner, a cosponsor of the prize along with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and others. “All of our futures depend on them.”

Complete list of winners, and citations:

Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics

(The $3 million physics prize will be shared between the entire 27 member Wilkinson Microwave Anistropy Probe experimental team, with the largest share going to the following five team leaders)

· Chuck L. Bennett, Johns Hopkins University

· Gary Hinshaw, Univ. of British Columbia

· Norman Jarosik, Princeton University

· Lyman Page, Jr., Princeton University

· David N. Spergel, Princeton University

CITATION: For detailed maps of the early universe that greatly improved our knowledge of the evolution of the cosmos and the fluctuations that seeded the formation of galaxies.

Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences

(Each of the five Life Science winners will receive a $3 million prize.)

Don Cleveland

University of California San Diego

CITATION: For elucidating the molecular pathogenesis of a type of inherited ALS, including the role of glia in neurodegeneration, and for establishing antisense oligonucleotide therapy in animal models of ALS and Huntington disease.

Kim Nasmyth

University of Oxford

CITATION: For elucidating the sophisticated mechanism that mediates the perilous separation of duplicated chromosomes during cell division and thereby prevents genetic diseases such as cancer.

Peter Walter

UC San Francisco

CITATION: For elucidating the unfolded protein response, a cellular quality-control system that detects disease-causing unfolded proteins and directs cells to take corrective measures.

Kazutoshi Mori

Kyoto University

CITATION: Also, for elucidating the unfolded protein response, a cellular quality-control system that detects disease-causing unfolded proteins and directs cells to take corrective measures.

Joanne Chory

Salk Institute for Biological Studies & Howard Hughes Medical Institute

CITATION: For discovering the molecular mechanisms by which plants extract information from light and shade to modify their programs of shoot and leaf growth in the photosynthetic harvest of light.

Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics

(The 2 mathematics winners will share a $3 million prize)

Christopher Hacon

University of Utah

James McKernan

UC San Diego

CITATION: For transformational contributions to birational algebraic geometry, especially to the minimal model program in all dimensions.