Pitt Professor Roger Hendrix Wins Award From National Academy of Sciences

Issue Date: 
February 2, 2009


Bacteriophages, the microscopic viruses that attack bacteria, have earned University of Pittsburgh professor Roger Hendrix a notable honor from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Hendrix, a professor of biological sciences in Pitt’s School of Arts and Sciences, received the 2009 NAS Award for Scientific Reviewing, a $10,000 prize that has been presented for excellence in scientific reviewing during the past 10 years. The 2009 reviewing award was presented in the field of genetics.

Hendrix was among 18 researchers recognized by the NAS for extraordinary scientific achievements in the areas of biology, chemistry, geology, astronomy, social sciences, psychology, and the application of science for the public good. Fellow recipients include researchers from NASA, Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Chicago. The awardees will be honored April 26 during the academy’s 146th annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

The academy’s recognition of Hendrix stems from his extensive writing for academic journals and in books about bacteriophage research, both his own and in the field at large. Bacteriophages are viruses specific to bacteria and are thought to be the most numerous creatures on Earth. In addition, their simple composition—a few hundred precisely arranged protein molecules surrounding a DNA molecule—makes them comparatively easy to study, and the resulting insights are applicable to more complex organisms. The viruses have been a focus of intensive research—in fields ranging from evolution to medicine—for approximately the last half-century.

In his research, Hendrix investigates the mechanisms through which bacteriophages assemble within an infected cell prior to traveling to the next cell. After assembly, the viruses are released from the infected cell, acting as little “spaceships” that protect the virus DNA until it can infect another cell. The assembly of the protein structure capable of this process is complicated and specific, Hendrix said, and to understand it would provide insight into

the assembly of biological structures in general.

Hendrix also studies the evolution of viruses by looking at the evolution of bacteriophages. Viruses do not leave behind “fossils” or other physical evidence, but Hendrix finds evidence about the evolutionary histories of phages by comparing their DNA sequences. In reference to evolution in general, the bacteriophages illustrate on a manageable and faster-paced scale how select populations of similar organisms survive while others don’t.

The NAS recognized this work as well as Hendrix’s ability to synthesize existing ideas and research in review articles—such as a bacteriophage chapter in Origin and Evolution of Viruses (Academic Press, 2008)—and in journal commentaries highlighting the work of others in his field. Recent commentaries by Hendrix have appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Current Biology, and Molecular Microbiology.

Hendrix cofounded and codirects the Pitt-based Pittsburgh Bacteriophage Institute with Pitt biological sciences chair and Eberly Family Professor Graham Hatfull. The institute includes researchers and students from around the world in an effort to better understand bacteriophages and their practical applications. Hendrix joined Pitt’s biological sciences department in 1973. He received his PhD degree in 1970 from Harvard, where he studied under James D. Watson, a corecipient of the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work in uncovering the structure of DNA.