When he first saw the Columbia University envelope, Joe Lutkenhaus thought it might contain a request for a donation because his daughter is a law student there.
But the Kansas University Medical Center microbiologist soon saw it was something entirely different. A letter inside told him he was one of three winners of Columbia’s 2012 Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize — an award that has preceded a Nobel Prize for nearly half of its previous winners.
Lutkenhaus, a distinguished professor of microbiology, molecular genetics and immunology, won the honor along with Richard M. Losick of Harvard University and Lucy Shapiro of the Stanford University School of Medicine, Columbia announced Monday.
“I’m kind of overwhelmed when I look at the past winners,” Lutkenhaus said Friday.
Of the 87 people to win the honor for research in biology and biochemistry, 42 have gone on to win a Nobel Prize.
The award came as a complete surprise, Lutkenhaus said. He still doesn’t know who nominated him.
“I’m still in a bit of shock,” he said.
Lutkenhaus and the other two scientists were honored for research that led to a greater understanding of bacteria cells.
He began his research on the subject in the late 1970s, he said, during a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. It continued after he came to KU in 1981.
His discoveries showed that bacterial cells are more similar to the larger cells found in plants and animals than scientists had known before, he said.
“Bacterial cells are much more sophisticated and complex than we previously realized,” Lutkenhaus said.
He discovered a protein, FtsZ, important to cell division in bacterial cells that is similar to a protein in plant and animal cells used in the segregation of DNA. And a ring formed by that protein, called a Z ring, also served as the first evidence that bacteria cells, like plant and animal cells, have a cytoskeleton that gives them shape, he said.
Losick and Shapiro collaborated afterward on research that provided further information about the organization of bacteria cells.
The Horwitz Prize is one of two scientific honors considered precursors to the Nobel Prize, Lutkenhaus said. But for now, he’s not contemplating his chances to win the “ultimate award” for a scientist, he said.
“I’m not even going to think about it,” Lutkenhaus said.