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Harvard scientist wins prize for 3-D human genome sequencing method

Erez Lieberman Aiden, Harvard scientist, and winner of the $25,000 GE & Science Prize for Young Life ScientistsImage courtesy of Erez Lieberman Aiden

Erez Lieberman Aiden, a fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows and a visiting faculty member at Google, has won the GE & Science Prize for Young Life Scientists for the development of a new method for sequencing the human genome in 3-D.

Aiden is a polymath with talents that extend beyond molecular biology; he is perhaps best known for the collaborative effort that he led to build a tool that scours the text of 4 percent of the world’s books to provide insights into the evolution of culture, history, and society. He won the $25,000 prize, supported by GE Healthcare and the journal Science, for the development of a technique that allowed him to construct spatial maps of the human genome -- explaining how a two-meter long double helix of DNA folds to fit into the microscopic command center of the cell, the nucleus.


In an essay called “Zoom!” published today in the journal Science, Aiden described his work. His inspiration came in part from a youthful diversion, the 1968 film, “The Powers of Ten.”

The film, he wrote, starts out at the everyday scale of human beings, depicting people having a picnic -- then zooms out to show the picnic area, the city of Chicago, Earth, and the universe. Then it zooms back in. Aiden became particularly intrigued by the journey into the cell nucleus and an intriguing problem -- how did all the DNA fold up to cram into that tiny space?

As a graduate student working with human genome pioneer Eric Lander, Aiden and his colleague Nynke van Berkum found that DNA must fold into a densely packed arrangement called the “fractal globule.” To explain his finding, Aiden draws on a staple of any graduate student’s diet -- ramen.

“Though it may sound abstract, the fractal globule is easy to explain to graduate students because it closely resembles the only food we can afford: ramen,” Aiden wrote.


“...Like the genome, when the conditions are right, the unknotted state can persist for a very long time: Ramen has an admirably long shelf life.”

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.