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Peter Dervan named 2022 Priestley Medalist

Caltech researcher honored for pioneering contributions in chemical biology

by Celia Henry Arnaud
June 24, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 24


Formal photo of Peter Dervan.
Credit: California Institute of Technology
Peter Dervan

Peter B. Dervan, Bren Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus, at the California Institute of Technology, has been named the recipient of the 2022 Priestley Medal, the American Chemical Society’s highest honor. He is being honored for his contributions to the field of chemical biology, especially the development of molecules that bind to specific DNA sequences.

Dervan trained as a physical organic chemist, but as a young assistant professor in the 1970s, he realized that he would never be satisfied making incremental advances in the already-mature field.

“I had to look for a new direction,” Dervan says. “As a chemist, I wanted to bring the intellectual rigor of my field of physical organic chemistry to biological materials.” He decided to study the interactions between small molecules and DNA. At the time, working with DNA was daunting: crystal structures of DNA didn’t exist, and sequencers and automated synthesizers had yet to be invented.

Crystal structure of a synthetic polyamide bound to the minor groove of a target DNA sequence.
Credit: Courtesy of Peter Dervan
Shown here is a crystal structure reported by Dervan’s lab in 1998 of a programmable synthetic polyamide containing imidazole (red), 3-hydroxypyrrole (yellow), and pyrrole (white) bound as an antiparallel dimer in the minor groove of a targeted DNA sequence.

“Peter has been a pioneer in bringing the principles of organic chemistry and mechanistic analysis to DNA research,” says Eric T. Kool, a nucleic acid chemist at Stanford University who was a postdoctoral researcher in Dervan’s group. Dervan developed molecules that could bind and cleave specific DNA sequences. His team showed that these DNA-binding molecules could be used, for example, to inhibit specific binding of transcription factors or to modulate aberrant gene expression in cells and animal models. “He was a world leader in the design and study of triple helical DNAs and in the design of DNA-minor-groove-binding molecules,” Kool says.

Dervan made early contributions to the field of chemical biology, though he considers his lab to have been an incubator for students and postdoctoral researchers who went on to invent the field. In the 1980s, “there just weren’t that many prominent examples of well-established organic chemists who were working in the biological realm,” says Samuel H. Gellman, a chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who was a postdoctoral researcher with Dervan. “Peter’s work was so thrilling because he was doing organic chemistry with authentic biopolymers.”

Dervan “was a pioneer of this concept of modularity,” says Laura L. Kiessling, a chemical biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was a postdoctoral researcher in Dervan’s lab. “He saw that you could take and mix molecules that on their own had separate functions, and he put them together to create a molecule with a new function.” Dervan and his team, for example, designed molecules in which one end could bind DNA and the other end could cleave it.

In addition to his research, Dervan has also served the educational and philanthropic community. He was a member of the Yale Corporation, the university’s governing board, from 2008 to 2016. He received his PhD from Yale, where he worked with Jerome Berson. He currently serves as the chair of the scientific advisory board at the Welch Foundation.

“I consider myself deeply fortunate to have been mentored by him across different scales and projects,” says Scott A. Strobel, the current provost at Yale who was a graduate student in Dervan’s lab. “He is both a great scientific partner and an excellent administrative partner. His impact is already legendary and will continue to grow.”

With this award, Dervan is now part of a dual–Priestley Medal household. His wife, Jacqueline K. Barton, received the Priestley Medal in 2015.


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