The prizes — which include a $500,000 cash award — are given to up to three leading scientists in each category in recognition of their groundbreaking contributions to a field.
The Cosmology Prize was awarded to Nicholas Kaiser and Joseph Silk for their seminal contributions to the understanding of cosmological structure formation and the creation of new probes of dark matter. In the late 1960s, Silk, currently at the Institut d'Astrophysique de Paris, calculated that the cosmic microwave background of the early universe contained fluctuations in average density of a critical size (smaller fluctuations would have dissipated over the last thirteen billion years). Beginning in 1984, Kaiser, a professor at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, provided the statistical tools that enabled astronomers to study primordial fluctuations at greater levels of precision. Kaiser's methodology also has helped determine the distribution of dark matter in the universe and its non-relativistic nature, while in 1984 Silk proposed exploring the identity of dark-matter particles through their possible self-annihilations into particles that can be identified — a strategy that continues to drive research today.
The Neuroscience Prize was awarded to Joseph S. Takahashi, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center who is best known for his team's discovery of the "Clock gene," which serves as a sort of master regulator of circadian rhythms in mice. After identifying the gene in the 1990s — when the complete mouse genome had not been decoded and DNA sequencing was much more laborious and costly — Takahashi's lab went on to discover Clock's partner gene, Bmal1, which together contain instructions for cells to make proteins that in turn affect how many other genes are used in a circadian rhythm-dependent fashion.
And the Genetics Prize was awarded to Bert Vogelstein, a professor at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins and an HHMI investigator whose work has advanced understanding of cancer pathogenesis and led to the development of new diagnostic tests and targeted therapies for cancer. In 1992, Vogelstein's team reported that body fluids of cancer patients contain DNA with mutations — a finding that led to the first FDA-approved non-invasive cancer screening test based on genetic alterations and enabled detection of certain cancers before a tumor has developed, making them easier to treat.
"Bert Vogelstein has made major contributions to our understanding of the cancer genome," said Helen Hobbs, a professor at UT Southwestern and chairof the selection advisory board for the prize. "He has had a profound impact on strategies for cancer prevention and treatment."