Donald Kane, a developmental biologist and geneticist who studies how minute changes in cells and genes hours after conception conspire to produce the mature zebrafish, has been named a Pew Scholar for 1998. The award, given to just 20 young scientists nationwide each year, signifies Kane's status among America's most promising young biomedical researchers.
Kane, an assistant professor of biology, joined the University of Rochester faculty last year. His award from the Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts offers $200,000 to support his research over a four-year period.
For more than a decade, Kane has scrutinized the genes of the zebrafish, an inch-long, black-and-white-striped fish often found in home aquariums. Kane's laboratory is lined with hundreds of shoebox-sized plastic aquariums fitted with a system that uses sand to cleanse the water.
Using compound microscopes and time-lapse photography, Kane studies how the fish's cells arrange themselves in the first hours after conception, laying the groundwork for the shape and structure of the adult fish. Since zebrafish are not-so-distant relatives of humans, a better understanding of how cells migrate in their embryos may provide clues to cancer, where rogue cells move unchecked throughout the body.
The zebrafish is increasingly popular among developmental biologists because its virtually transparent embryo makes for easy viewing of live, growing cells. Kane uses the organism to examine how mutations known by such quirky monikers as "half-baked," "zombie," and "ogre" can disrupt development. Many such mutations have been identified by scientists; Kane is examining how seemingly minor aberrations within a single gene can translate into major deformities throughout the organism.
Before coming to Rochester, Kane and his wife and collaborator, Rachel Warga, spent five years in the Tüebingen, Germany lab of Nobel laureate Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard. The couple were among 13 researchers working on a massive study to pinpoint the zebrafish genes that control such fundamental steps in development as the wiring of the brain and the patterning of the jaw and ears.
Kane holds a Ph.D. from the University of Oregon and a B.A. from the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Since 1985, the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences has awarded $56 million in grants to 280 young biomedical scholars. More than 90 research institutions submitted nominations for this year's awards; Kane's fellow Pew scholars hail from the likes of Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins, Caltech, and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
"These young scientists are the lifeblood of the research community," says Rebecca W. Rimel, president of the Pew Charitable Trusts.