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Thomas D. Petes, PhD, has been named the 2013 recipient of the Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal for lifetime achievement in the field of genetics from the Genetics Society of America.
 
Petes, the Minnie Geller Professor of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at Duke University School of Medicine, specializes in the study of yeast as a model for understanding genomic instability and chromosomal abnormalities commonly found in cancer cells.
 
"Tom Petes’ research on cell division in yeast has direct relevance for human cells and the proteins involved in DNA repair, with important implications for understanding genetic defects that cause cancer," said Nancy Andrews, M.D., PhD., dean of the Duke University School of Medicine. "It is a powerful example of how the most fundamental, basic science research can have tremendous importance for understanding and treating human diseases.”
 
Petes and his colleagues have discovered striking similarities between yeast and human cells in the structure and function of proteins involved in DNA repair and in the protection of the tips of chromosomes. The similarities have yielded new insight into how normal cells become cancerous. For example, yeast cells lacking particular DNA mismatch repair enzymes exhibit genetic instabilities also found in human colorectal cancer cells, a finding that suggested the repair defects might play an important role in the disease process.
 
Notably, Petes was among the first to apply these findings to hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer, an inherited syndrome in which 80 percent of patients develop intestinal tumors. Petes predicted that afflicted patients might similarly have mismatch repair mutations.
 
The Petes lab also identified a gene in yeast required for maintenance of the tips of chromosomes that was closely related to a human gene mutated in patients with the cancer-prone disease ataxia telangiectasia.
 
"Dr. Petes' rigorous work over the years in a model organism, in this case, yeast, is a wonderful example of how studies of model organisms can inform us about mechanisms of human disease, in this case, cancer,” said Michael B. Kastan, M.D., PhD, executive director of the Duke Cancer Institute and the William W. Shingleton Professor of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology. “He is richly deserving of this award for a superior body of work."
 
Petes received his PhD in genetics at the University of Washington in Seattle. He then went on to postdoctoral fellowships at the National Institute for Medical Research in London and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
 
In 2002, Petes served as president of the Genetics Society of America, and was the chair of the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at Duke from 2004-2009. He has been a member of the National Academy of Sciences since 1999; was named to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2005; and became a fellow in the American Academy of Microbiology in 2009.
 
The Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal is awarded for lifetime contributions to the science of genetics. It recognizes the full body of work of an exceptional geneticist, and recipients have made substantial contributions throughout their careers.
 
The Medal was established by the Genetics Society of America in 1981 and named in honor of Thomas Hunt Morgan, who received a 1933 Nobel Prize for his findings, which provided the first experimental evidence that chromosomes are the carriers of genetic information.