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Itay Budin

Molecular and Cellular Biology graduate student Itay Budin has received the Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s 2012 Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Award, which recognizes outstanding achievement during graduate studies in the biological sciences. Budin’s research focuses on understanding the selective pressures that drove the transition from primitive to modern cell membranes. He is one of twelve graduates from those nominated nationwide to receive the award on the basis of the quality, originality, and significance of their work.

“Itay has a terrific understanding of physical systems at the molecular level,” says Jack Szostak, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and Budin’s advisor in the MCB’s Engineering and Physical Biology (EPB) graduate program. “It is this insight and his creativity that have allowed Itay to do such surprisingly simple but informative experiments on the role of membranes in the origin of life.”

As Budin explains, the first cell membranes had a simpler lipid structure than modern cells. “We showed that the process of linking two fatty acids together into a phospholipid causes a dramatic growth of fatty acid membranes–by consuming neighboring membranes.” This competitive growth phenomenon is chemically much simpler than synthesizing new lipids, as modern cells do. It also provides a mechanism for membranes to evolve the now universal phospholipid bilayer structure. Budin is now trying to evolve in the lab an RNA ribozyme that could catalyze this reaction and provide insights into the ‘RNA World’ hypothesis for the origin of life.

“The Weintraub award is a real honor,” says Budin. “It’s great to be recognized for doing basic science to address fundamental questions about the biology and mechanisms by which cells have evolved.”

Budin and the other award recipients will participate in a scientific symposium honoring Hal Weintraub and his commitment to innovative science on May 4, 2012, at the Hutchinson Center’s Robert W. Day Campus in Seattle.

The award symposium will consist of scientific presentations by the graduate student awardees, and informal gatherings of students and faculty. The award is sponsored by the Fred Hutchinson Weintraub and Groudine Fund, which was established to foster intellectual exchange through the promotion of programs for graduate students, fellows and visiting scholars.

[March 5, 2012]