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Nealson, Petasis Named AAAS Fellows

Kenneth Nealson of earth sciences and Nicos Petasis of chemistry are chosen as fellows of the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the journal Science.

By Robert Perkins and Pamela J. Johnson
December 10, 2013

Kenneth H. Nealson, Wrigley Chair in Environmental Studies and professor of earth sciences and biological sciences (left), and Nicos A. Petasis, Harold and Lillian Moulton Chair in Chemistry and professor of chemistry and pharmacology, were selected as AAAS fellows for their key scientific discoveries. Nealson photo by Phil Channing. Petasis photo by Alexandra Bissonette.

Kenneth H. Nealson, Wrigley Chair in Environmental Studies and professor of earth sciences and biological sciences (left), and Nicos A. Petasis, Harold and Lillian Moulton Chair in Chemistry and professor of chemistry and pharmacology, were selected as AAAS fellows for their key scientific discoveries. Nealson photo by Phil Channing. Petasis photo by Alexandra Bissonette.

Two USC Dornsife scientists have been elected fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), selected for the honor by their academic peers.

Kenneth H. Nealson, Wrigley Chair in Environmental Studies and professor of earth sciences and biological sciences, was chosen for his groundbreaking work in environmental microbiology, particularly the discovery of the regulatory mechanism quorum sensing and the isolation and identification of metal reducing bacterium.

Nealson’s thesis and postdoctoral work, and early professorial research at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego involved the biochemistry and physiology of light emitting bacteria. During these studies, Nealson discovered a mechanism the bacteria used to control their light emission that he called “autoinduction.”  Nealson and his team purified the “autoinducer” — a homoserine lactone — and showed that it was used by the bacteria to communicate with each other in a process later renamed “quorum sensing.”  This mechanism is now recognized as a major mechanism involved with microbial ecology, especially regarding biofilm formation and pathogenesis.

Nicos A. Petasis, Harold and Lillian Moulton Chair in Chemistry and professor of chemistry and pharmacology, was selected for his pioneering contributions to organic chemistry and biomedical sciences, with the discovery of novel synthetically useful reactions and new paradigms involving chemistry, biology and medicine.

A faculty member of USC Dornsife’s Department of Chemistry and the Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute, Petasis developed a compound now known as the “Petasis reagent,” which is being used in many research laboratories and was licensed to the pharmaceutical company Merck for the development of the now FDA-approved chemotherapy drug Emend. Petasis also discovered two other reactions that carry his name, including the “Petasis reaction,” a novel, environmentally friendly process for synthesizing many kinds of amino acids and other molecules important in drug discovery. This widely used technology also was licensed to the pharmaceutical industry.

In addition to his discoveries in chemistry, Petasis is being recognized for his contributions to the biomedical sciences through his many collaborative efforts with researchers in biology and medicine. His work during the past two decades involving omega-3 fatty acids led to new therapeutic paradigms for inflammation and related diseases, and resulted in drug candidates currently in clinical trials. More recently, his joint efforts with colleagues at the USC School of Pharmacy, the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and the USC Eye Institute revealed new therapeutic agents with novel mechanisms of action. 

AAAS, is the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the journal Science, began the tradition of selecting fellows in 1874. The nonprofit organization originated in 1848.

Fellows are selected from among the society’s membership through nomination by a steering group within the association, by three fellows who are currently AAAS members or by the association’s CEO.

This year, 388 AAAS members will be made fellows. The six honorees from USC come from USC Dornsife and the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

Other USC fellows include:

Frank Davis Gilliland, professor of environmental health at USC Keck, for outstanding contributions to the scientific understanding of how genetic, epigenetic and environmental factors contribute to asthma and other diseases of public health importance.

Robert E. Maxson, Jr., professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at USC Keck, for distinguished contributions to the field of developmental biology, particularly mechanisms of skull growth, craniofacial birth defects, and neural crest cell migration in organogenesis.

Rob McConnell, professor of environmental health at USC Keck, for meritorious contributions to advancing public health through the conduct of landmark epidemiological studies of pesticide poisoning, and effects of ambient air pollution in children.

Berislav V. Zlokovic, director of the Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute at USC Keck, for distinguished contributions toward a comprehensive understanding of the role of CNS microcirculation and blood-brain barrier in the pathogenesis of chronic neurodegenerative disorders including Alzheimer's disease.

The new fellows will be presented with a certificate and a gold and blue rosette pin symbolizing science and engineering on Feb. 15, 2014, at the annual AAAS meeting in Chicago.