UCSD Prof. Rob Knight Wins $200,000 Massry Prize

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UCSD Prof. Rob Knight. Photo courtesy of the Knight Lab.

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UC San Diego professor Rob Knight and two other researchers were awarded the Massry Prize, a distinguished award to honor those who have contributed to advancement in the fields of health and the biomedical sciences. At UCSD, Professor Knight holds appointments in both the departments of Pediatrics and Computer Science.

Knight’s previous work at the University of Colorado Boulder involved discerning microbial differences, from differences in gut microbes between lean and obese people, to differences in microbes taken from natural and artificial environments. He also helped to create an open source program now widely used in many labs called UniFrac (Unique Fraction). According to a Nature news article, the UniFrac program works by creating evolutionary trees from genes sequenced from the microbial communities and the fraction of unique branches are calculated to determine the extent to which the communities are different.

Currently, Knight’s research at UCSD focuses on an intersection of biology and computer science. Not only is Knight pioneering the field of microbiomes, but he is also researching ways to develop bioinformatic tools to analyze large microbial data sets. As stated on his lab’s website, the goal of the Knight Lab is to study the evolution of microbial ecosystems in various environments, biomolecules, and the genome by utilizing and developing computational and experimental techniques, which includes creating open-source software tools.

In a recent Analytical Chemistry journal article publication, Knight contributed to research in Chagas disease, a parasitic infection that ranges in severity from asymptomatic to fatal heart failure for unclear reasons. This research allows for further understanding of the disease by exploring the relationship between the parasite and humans. The researchers determined that the parasite prefered to reside at the base of the heart and they discovered new cardiac chemical signatures that may one day be used to determine the severity of the disease in patients.

Twelve of the recipients of the Massry Prize also received a Nobel Prize, the most recent example being the recipients of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, who also won the Massry Prize in 2012. Knight is accepting the Massry Prize along with Professor Jeffrey Gordon, MD, from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and Professor Pace, PhD, from the University of Colorado Boulder. The three will split an honorarium of $200,000 for their efforts.

Natalie Lam is a staff writer at The Triton.