Harvard biologist Sanes is being recognized for his pioneering insights into mechanisms of synapse development.

Joshua Sanes awarded the 2020 Scolnick Prize

Harvard biologist Sanes is being recognized for his pioneering insights into mechanisms of synapse development.

2020 Scolnick Prize winner Joshua Sanes in his lab at Harvard University. Photo: Harvard University

The McGovern Institute announced today that Joshua Sanes is the 2020 recipient of the Edward M. Scolnick Prize in Neuroscience. Sanes is being recognized for his numerous contributions to our understanding of synapse development. It was Sanes who focused the power of molecular genetics toward understanding how synapses are built. He is currently the Jeff C. Tarr Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology and the Paul J. Finnegan Family Director at the Center for Brain Science at Harvard University.

“We have followed Josh’s work for many years, and the award honors the profound impact he has had on neuroscience” says Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern Institute and the chair of the committee. “His work on synapse development and connectivity is critical to understanding brain disorders, and will also be essential to deciphering the highest functions of the brain.”

Individual neurons are labeled in the hippocampus of the Brainbow mouse. The Sanes lab developed this method, yielding some of the most iconic images in neuroscience. Image: Josh Sanes

While the space between neurons at the synapse is called a cleft, it has a defined structure, and as a postdoctoral fellow and faculty member at Washington University, Sanes studied the extracellular matrix proteins that line this region in the motor system. This work provided a critical entry point to studying synaptic development in the central nervous system and Sanes went on to examine how synapses form with exquisite specificity. In pursuit of understanding interactions in the nervous system, Sanes developed novel cell-marking methods that allow neuronal connectivity to be traced using multi-colored fluorescent markers. This work led to development of the ‘Brainbow’ mouse, yielding some of the most striking and iconic images in recent neuroscience. This line of research has recently leveraged modern sequencing techniques that have even identified an entirely novel cell type in the long-studied retina. The methodologies and findings from the Sanes lab have had a global impact, and deepened our understanding of how neurons find one another and connect.

Sanes becomes the 16th researcher to win the prestigious prize, established in 2004 by Merck to honor Scolnick, who spent 17 years holding the top research post at Merck Research Laboratories. Sanes will deliver the Scolnick Prize lecture at the McGovern Institute on April 27th, 2020 at 4:00pm in the Singleton Auditorium of MIT’s Brain and Cognitive Sciences Complex (Bldg 46-3002), 43 Vassar Street in Cambridge. The event is free and open to the public.