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Environmental Factor

July 2011

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NIH honors Kunkel as distinguished investigator

By Eddy Ball
July 2011

NIEHS Principal Investigator Thomas A. Kunkel, Ph.D.

Kunkel has developed several novel experimental approaches for investigating DNA replication, and he is considered one of the world's leading experts in the field. A recent review of the Laboratory of Structural Biology said of Kunkel, "He is considered to be one of the major intellectual drivers of the laboratory and also possesses excellent managerial skills."   (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

NIH announced in early June its approval for the promotion of NIEHS Principal Investigator Thomas A. Kunkel, Ph.D., to the rank of NIH Distinguished Investigator, one of the highest honors NIH awards to its scientists. The promotion, which only an estimated two to three percent of NIH scientists ever achieve, requires a special peer review and approval by the director of NIH.

As the memo from NIH Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., explains, "This title is reserved for tenured intramural senior investigators who are at the highest level of accomplishment in their respective fields." Following a nomination by NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., a peer review of Kunkel's performance was conducted by the special NIH Distinguished Investigator Review Subcommittee prior to approval by Collins.

Molecular genetics and structural biology

Along with directing the NIEHS Environmental Biology Program, Kunkel serves as head of the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics DNA Replication Fidelity Group and chief of the Laboratory of Structural Biology. This dual appointment reflects one of the qualities that make his research stand out in the field - the forging of a bond between molecular genetics and structural biology. One of his recent papers, for example, used this cross-specialty approach to uncover strong evidence to support Watson and Crick's theory about the origin of spontaneous base substitution mutations, a theory previously unproven in the more than half century since its proposal in 1953 (see story(

In his work on DNA replication fidelity, Kunkel's authorship is frequently associated with firsts in the understanding of the DNA transactions that determine DNA replication fidelity. He is a major contributor to new knowledge about the several repair processes that operate prior to DNA replication to remove the many types of DNA damage generated by endogenous cellular metabolism or exposure to the environment.

Three decades of outstanding research

During his almost 30-year tenure at NIEHS, Kunkel has published numerous peer-reviewed articles in leading scientific journals, as well as several book chapters, and mentored a number of distinguished scientists in his lab. He has authored or coauthored numerous outstanding studies recognized as NIEHS Intramural Papers of the Month and has published 138 articles in rigorously peer-reviewed, high-impact journals in the past decade alone.

In addition to honors from professional organizations, Kunkel was selected as NIEHS Scientist of the Year in 2005, and won Paper of the Year in 2004, 2007, 2008, and 2009. When the NIH celebrated scientific discoveries made at the NIH over the previous two decades, among the 20 most cited papers by NIH investigators were two authored by him.

Among Kunkel's many honors include his selection as chair of several Gordon Research Conferences, an Environmental Mutagen Society Award for Basic Research, and the Mutation Research Award. He received an honorary doctoral degree from UmeÅ University in 2007 for his identification of the DNA polymerase that replicates the leading strand of the eukaryotic nuclear genome.

Kunkel has presented a number of invited distinguished lectures and served as chair at numerous professional symposia and meetings, as well as national search committees and tenure committees. He has considerable editorial expertise, having served for 15 years on the editorial board of the Journal of Biological Chemistry and for the past eight years as an editor for DNA Repair. He performs peer-review for numerous journals, and his advice is frequently sought for grant reviews.

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