NEW YORK, May 13 - Mario Capecchi, one of the inventors of the knockout mouse, was honored last week with the National Medal of Science, the country's most prestigious award for scientific achievement.
Capecchi, 65, helped create the gene-knockout technology that would transform the study of human disease. His insight, that the natural mechanism of homologous DNA recombination in mammalian cells could be harnessed to silence individual genes in an organism, launched a new era in mammalian biology.
He was one of 15 researchers named last week for the National Medal of Science. All will be given their awards in a June 13 White House ceremony.
Born in Italy in 1937 to an American mother and an Italian father, Capecchi spent several years of his childhood homeless, fending for himself on the streets of southern Italy while his mother was locked up in the Dachau concentration camp for her connection to Europe's anti-fascist bohemian community.
Reunited with his mother in 1946, Capecchi moved to the United States, where he grew up on a Pennsylvania Quaker commune. After college, he joined James Watson's molecular-biology lab at Harvard, finishing his PhD in biophysics in 1967.
He joined the University of Utah School of Medicine in 1973, where he developed the techniques that would for the first time permit gene targeting and gene silencing in mammals. Initially rejected by the US National Institutes of Health, Capecchi's ideas would ultimately become one of the core technologies of medical molecular biology.
Capecchi's microinjection techniques showed that DNA could be introduced directly into mammalian cells; his insight was that DNA would recombine predictably enough that individual genes could be targeted and silenced in early-stage embryos, allowing researchers to study the significance of single genes in mammalian development and disease.
For this work, he won the Japan's Kyoto prize in 1996 and the Lasker award last year, which he shared with Martin Evans and Oliver Smithies.
Capecchi, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute researcher, now studies the role of homeobox genes in neuronal development.