June 2011

Gary Felsenfeld: untangling chromatin’s mysteries

From DNA structure to gene expression, Felsenfeld has done a lot during his five decades at the NIH.  

 This year marks Gary Felsenfeld's 50th at the NIH, an institution he credits with much of his success.

It would be understandable if someone as accomplished as Gary Felsenfeld decided to take it easy and enjoy all his past successes, but this distinguished 81-year-old investigator is not one to rest on his laurels.

Sitting at his desk, which like most surfaces in his office is covered with stacks of papers, Felsenfeld recounts his group's most recent results with the enthusiasm of a graduate student who has just published his first article and not a scientific elder statesman who has more than five decades of influential discoveries under his belt.

It's easy to understand his eagerness to discuss the new findings though. Felsenfeld, currently chief of the section on physical chemistry in the Laboratory of Molecular Biology at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, describes an intriguing mechanism by which the insulin gene can stimulate the expression of a far distant gene, sequentially speaking. This is accomplished by having insulin and the target gene brought into close physical proximity by external factors.

This long-distance regulation offers just one example of how researchers like Felsenfeld are changing the way we view the relationship between chromatin structure and gene expression. This sort of right-place–at-the-right-time understanding of gene regulation also may be an apt analogy for appreciating Felsenfeld's own scientific story.

Which kind of doctor?

While Felsenfeld's mentors during his training read like a "Who's Who" of 20th-century biochemists, his progression along the research path was not immediately obvious. His fascination with the natural world was cemented by the time he was eight, but his family interpreted his early interests as a sign that he would be a physician.

"At that time, if you were interested in biology, you had to be a doctor," he recalls. "I even remember my father, an attorney, telling me that science was just a hobby."

"He was right," Felsenfeld adds with a laugh. "Science is a fun hobby for me – one I'm paid to do!"

As a teenager, Felsenfeld was accepted to the renowned Stuyvesant High School, one of three specialized science high schools in New York City, and was a Westinghouse Science Talent Search finalist (now the Intel Science Talent Search). The finalists traveled to Washington, D.C., and toured the NIH, which Felsenfeld remembers being rather bleak and imposing. But he met young scientists who encouraged him to pursue his scientific interests.

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