Francisco J. Ayala, a UC Irvine professor who pioneered the use of molecular biology to study evolution, was among 15 U.S. scientists and engineers named Thursday to receive the National Medal of Science.
Ayala's 40-year effort has led to a better understanding and treatment of infectious diseases that affect millions and may one day lead to new drugs and vaccines to combat malaria and Chagas disease, a chronic wasting ailment.
Ayala, a former Roman Catholic priest, also is a noted expert in the philosophy of evolution. He testified in a landmark 1982 Arkansas trial that required that creationism be given equal treatment with evolution in public schools. A federal court struck down the law.
"In every generation of scientists, there are always a few people whose work reaches the top," said Susan Bryant, dean of UCI's School of Biological Sciences. "He's just one of a handful of evolutionary biologists who, consistently over four decades, has been there with incisive answers to life's most difficult questions."
Ayala, 68, is among five researchers from the University of California system to receive this year's award, the nation's highest scientific accolade.
"It's quite an honor," said Ayala, reached Thursday in Beijing where he was giving a lecture.
By breaking down the DNA of parasites, Ayala showed how various strains of Chagas disease are genetically related through cloning. It affects as many as 18 million people in Central and South America.
Ayala also discovered how three strains of malaria were transmitted to humans, as well as how the parasites that cause malignant malaria evolved more than 5,000 years ago from a single strain in Africa.
"Much of my work has consisted of finding the mechanism by which evolution occurs," Ayala said. "It's like being a detective. It's very painstaking work."
By breaking down the "molecular clock" of various species, scientists can track when those species diverged from a common ancestor, and eventually attack their genetic similarities with drugs.
"He's been able to show evolution at the molecular level," Bryant said. "He has made evolution more of a precise science and less a descriptive science."
Ayala, a native of Madrid, came to the United States in 1961. He received a doctorate in genetics from Columbia University and worked at universities in New York, Rhode Island and at UC Davis before coming to UCI in 1987. At UC Irvine he is the Donald Bren Professor of Biological Sciences, a philosophy professor and director of the Bren Fellows Program.
Four other UC researchers were awarded the National Medal of Science: Marvin L. Cohen of UC Berkeley; Charles D. Keeling of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego; Gabor A. Somorjai of UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; and Harold E. Varmus of UC San Francisco.
Cohen, 67, was honored for his work in semiconductor technology.
Keeling, 74, was cited for his pioneering studies on global climate change.
Somorjai, 67, was honored in the field of chemistry as the leading authority in the development of surface science.
Varmus, 61, was cited for his work on the genetics of cancer. Varmus, who is president of Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, and UCSF Chancellor J. Michael Bishop shared the 1989 Nobel Prize in medicine for their research.
The recipients will receive their medals from President Bush at a White House ceremony this month. The National Science Foundation administers the awards for the White House.