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Event honors Gary Felsenfeld

Thoru Pederson Bruce Alberts
By Thoru Pederson and Bruce Alberts
Feb. 12, 2024

A celebration honoring Gary Felsenfeld, a pioneer in the study of nucleic acid structure and chromatin, brought together more than 25 of his former National Institutes of Health lab members recently to offer reminiscences. Inspired by our decades-long admiration of Felsenfeld, the authors organized this event in Washington, D.C.

Group photo of event celebrating Gary Felsenfeld.
Daniel Felsenfeld
Longtime NIH researcher Gary Felsenfeld, center, is surrounded by former lab members and admirers during a celebration in January at the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C.

Felsenfeld’s career spanned three eras of biophysical chemistry and molecular biology.  He was the first, with David Davies and Alex Rich, to demonstrate the existence of three-stranded RNA and (independently with Stuart Orkin) identified GATA1, an early discovery of an erythroid gene regulatory factor.   In the 1970s, he made a major discovery on the structure of chromatin and later defined key regulatory elements of gene expression, including “insulator” elements and the transcription factor CTCF. 

A member of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology for more than 60 years who served on the Journal of Biological Chemistry editorial board in the 1960s, Felsenfeld has received many honors in his career but this was a very personal one, as we intended and as he described it afterwards. 

During the evening, Felsenfeld shared memories of some of his mentors, including protein scientist John Edsall at Harvard, where Felsenfeld was an undergraduate, and two-time Nobel Prize winner, biochemist and peace activist Linus Pauling at the California Institute of Technology, where Felsenfeld earned his Ph.D. — an enriching historical connection for most of the guests who knew these scientists by name only. 

Felsenfeld, soon to be 95, spent almost his entire career at the National Institutes of Health, where he served as the Molecular Biology Section chief in the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and is now an NIH distinguished investigator and scientist emeritus.

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Thoru Pederson
Thoru Pederson

Thoru Pederson is a professor of biochemistry and molecular biotechnology at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School.

Bruce Alberts
Bruce Alberts

Bruce Alberts is a professor of biochemistry and biophysics, University of California San Francisco.

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