Penn State Evolutionary Biologist Wins Prestigious Kyoto Prize
The Inamori Foundation presented its 29th annual Kyoto Prize to three recipients, including Masatoshi Nei, Ph.D., for basic sciences. Japan’s highest private award for global achievement carries with it a 20-karat gold Kyoto Prize medal, a cash gift of $500,000, and a diploma in recognition of lifelong contributions to society.
Dr. Nei, 82, the Evan Pugh Professor of Biology and director of the Institute for Molecular Evolutionary Genetics at Penn State, was honored for making it possible to discuss evolutionary divergence, genetic diversity, and the mode of selection on genes in a quantitative manner by devising various statistical methods, such as Nei’s genetic distance, and applying them to molecular data. Other researchers point out that using these methods, Dr. Nei’s research has yielded important contributions to molecular evolutionary biology as well as many other academic disciplines including ecology and conservation biology.
Dr. Nei has worked with many collaborators in his development of various statistical methods to determine the molecular mechanisms of biological diversity and of evolution. His genetic distance theory has become a key technique for studying the evolutionary relationships of different species using molecular data and has also become a cornerstone of population genetic analyses. This measure makes it possible to estimate the origins of populations and the times of their divergence from common ancestors.
Dr. Nei applied this technique to human populations and obtained the first evidence pointing to the African origins of modern humans. His 1972 paper (Genetic distance between populations. Am. Nat., 106, 283–292) has been listed among the 1,000 most-cited papers in all scientific fields. However, a more influential paper (Saitou, N. and M. Nei (1987), The neighbor-joining method: a new method for reconstructing phylogenetic trees. Mol. Biol. Evol. 4:406–425) is one of the most highly cited papers in the entire field of biology, and the number of citations is about 33,000 times by now.
He also developed several new evolutionary concepts such as "birth-and-death evolution of multigene families" and "mutation-driven evolution." In addition to his publications, Dr. Nei and his group have written and distributed software packages, including MEGA for molecular evolutionary genetics analysis, which is the most widely used software for phylogenetic analysis at present.