6 $3 -Million Breakthrough Prizes Awarded for Basic Science

Six projects in life sciences, physics and math have won this year’s Breakthrough Prizes—a series of annual awards honoring major discoveries in basic sciences. The $3-million prizes, founded three years ago by billionaire venture capitalist Yuri Milner, are the richest awards in science. (The 2015 Nobel Prizes, for comparison, came with purses of eight million Swedish kronor, or about $915,000 U.S.). The winners will accept their prizes during a televised awards ceremony on Sunday, November 8 at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., on the National Geographic Channel. This year’s prizes are:

Life Sciences

Optogenetics

  • Karl Deisseroth, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Stanford University
  • Ed Boyden, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and the M.I.T. McGovern Institute for Brain Research

The winners developed a way of programming neurons to express light-activated ion channels and pumps enabling their electrical activity to be controlled by light. Their work opens a new path to treatments for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, depression and blindness.

Genetics of Cholesterol

  • Helen Hobbs, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center

Hobbs discovered human genetic variants that alter the levels and distribution of cholesterol in the body, inspiring new approaches to the prevention of cardiovascular and liver disease.

Alzheimer’s Genes

  • John Hardy, University College London

Hardy discovered mutations in the amyloid precursor protein gene that cause early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Ancient DNA

  • Svante Pääbo, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

Pääbo pioneered the sequencing of DNA and genomes in ancient hominids, thereby illuminating the origins of modern humans and our relationships to extinct relatives such as Neandertals.

Math

Topology and Group Theory

  • Ian Agol, the University of California, Berkeley

Agol made significant advances in geometric topology that completed a revolution in the field that began more than 30 years ago.

Physics

Neutrino Oscillations
Five experimental teams of 1,370 physicists total, led by:

  • Takaaki Kajita, University of Tokyo, Super-Kamiokande experiment
  • Yoichiro Suzuki, University of Tokyo, Super-Kamiokande experiment
  • Wang Yifang, the Institute for High-Energy Physics in Beijing, Daya Bay Neutrino Experiment
  • Kam-Biu Luk, the University of California, Berkeley, Daya Bay Neutrino Experiment
  • Koichiro Nishikawa, Kyoto University, K2K (from KEK to Kamioka) Long-Baseline Neutrino Oscillation Experiment
  • Arthur B. McDonald, Queens University, the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory Experiment
  • Atsuto Suzuki, the High-Energy Accelerator Research Organization (KEK), the Kamioka Liquid Scintillator Antineutrino Detector (KamLAND)

These five experiments discovered that fundamental particles called neutrinos, which come in three types, or flavors, can switch flavors as they fly through space. The finding proved that neutrinos have mass—a surprise, because the Standard Model of particle physics had predicted that the particles would be massless.