Montana State University

MSU professor wins prestigious presidential award

January 12, 2017 -- By Denise Hoepfner, MSU News Service

Blake Wiedenheft, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology, has won a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. It is the highest honor the government bestows to early-career research science and engineering professionals. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

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BOZEMAN – A Montana State University professor of microbiology and immunology has won the highest honor the United States government bestows to science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers. 

The White House announced Monday that Blake Wiedenheft, assistant professor in MSU’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the College of Agriculture and the College of Letters and Science, has won a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, or PECASE. He is one of 102 scientists and researchers honored for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education or community outreach.

“To have my science recognized by President Obama is truly one of the greatest honors I could ever imagine,” Wiedenheft said.

Wiedenheft, who earned his Ph.D. from MSU in 2006, has established himself as a leading researcher in the study of CRISPRs, the defense mechanism that microbes use to protect against viral infection. This pioneering work in CRISPRs, an acronym for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” has major implications in environmental microbiology, and has transformed biomedical sciences by providing new tools for programmable manipulation of DNA.

Since joining MSU in 2012, Wiedenheft has filed three CRISPR-related patent applications with funding from private partnerships. This applied aspect of his work aims to create new tools for the surgical repair of defective genes that cause genetic diseases, such as muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis.

In addition to his research and biotechnology contributions, Wiedenheft was honored with the PECASE for his strong mentorship and outreach efforts.

Wiedenheft has mentored a number of students whose work in his lab has led them to their own accolades. One of these students, Josh Carter, was awarded prestigious Rhodes and Goldwater scholarships in 2016. Carter contributed to Wiedenheft’s CRISPR research and was part of the discovery of the first crystal structure of the CRISPR-associated complex for antiviral defense (Cascade). The discovery was published in the journal Science and highlighted on its cover.

To bring microbial science to the community, each summer Wiedenheft hosts a free program at MSU called the Montana Wild Virus Hunt. The popular program pairs high school students and science teachers in a three-day team competition to isolate viruses.

It was the hunt for viruses that spurred Wiedenheft’s own interest in the field as an MSU graduate student.

“As a graduate student at MSU, I was inspired by professors Mark Young and Trevor Douglas to hunt for viruses in unusual places,” Wiedenheft said. “This hunt took us to the boiling acid environments in Yellowstone National Park, which are teeming with microbes, such as bacteria and archaea, and a diverse group of unusual viruses that infect them. This project piqued my interest in understanding how bacteria fight off these infections.”

After completing his Ph.D. at MSU, Wiedenheft continued his research at the University of California, Berkeley in the lab of Jennifer Doudna, professor of chemistry and of molecular and cell biology. His work there helped to uncover a sophisticated adaptive immune system in bacteria that relies on a programmable molecular scalpel that protects bacteria by specifically chopping up invading viral DNA.

“This understanding helped provide a foundation that explained how these molecular scalpels could be repurposed for application in medicine or biotechnology,” Wiedenheft said. “Now these immune systems, called CRISPR-Cas9, are being used as programmable molecular scalpels that can be used to cure genetic disease in humans.

“Academic research is primarily fueled by an insatiable appetite for understanding the natural world, and unexpected discoveries from this type of work often lead to new technologies that transform medicine, energy and tech industries. CRISPRs are the latest demonstration of how academic science advances society in unexpected ways,” he said.

The technology, Wiedenheft said, is currently valued at around $40 billion.

Wiedenheft’s excellence in science, community service and mentorship has also led him to recognition through numerous other awards.

He was honored Tuesday at MSU’s spring convocation with two awards: the Vice President for Research Meritorious Technology and Science Award, which recognizes an MSU faculty member who has made significant technological/scientific contributions, and the Spirit of Discovery Award, which recognizes faculty who have excelled in teaching and mentoring students in the Honors College.

In March, he was invited to deliver the inaugural lecture for the National Institute of General Medical Sciences’ new Director’s Early Career Scientist Lecture series. Also in 2016, he received the National Institute of Health Director’s Early Career Scientist Award. In 2015, he received the Amgen Young Investigator Award. In 2014, he won the MSU Alumni Foundation/Bozeman Area Chamber of Commerce Award for Excellence and the Biophysical Society’s New and Notable Lecturer award.

“Blake is an outstanding young investigator who has established an internationally recognized research program focused on a relatively new area of cutting-edge research on the CRISPR gene-editing system,” said Mark Jutila, head of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. “His studies of this system have provided insights and new molecular approaches now used by many labs around the world to control gene editing in non-microbial cells, as well.”

The PECASE awards, established by President Bill Clinton in 1996, are coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President. Awardees are selected for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education, or community outreach.

President Barack Obama congratulated the awardees for their impactful work in science and engineering.

“These innovators are working to help keep the United States on the cutting edge, showing that federal investments in science lead to advancements that expand our knowledge of the world around us and contribute to our economy,” he said.

Contact: Blake Wiedenheft, MSU Department of Microbiology and Immunology, bwiedenheft@gmail.com or (406) 994-5009

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