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2009 Neuroscience Prize

Jeffrey Hall

Although born in Brooklyn, New York, Jeffrey Hall spent most of his childhood and adolescence in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. When he left for Massachusetts and Amherst College in 1963, he thought he would eventually go on to medical school, but halfway through his undergraduate degree, Hall realized that he was more interested in basic science. For his senior honors project he analyzed the effects of a chemical mutagen on recombination and translocation induction in the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster—his first introduction to the organism that would become the focus of his life’s work.

Hall continued to investigate genetic phenomena in Drosophila at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he received both his BSc (1969) and his PhD (1971) in genetics. During a postdoctoral position at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena he began to concentrate on the neurogenetics of Drosophila. He returned to Massachusetts in 1974 to join the faculty at Brandeis University, where he stayed until his semi-retirement in 2008. Hall currently is a professor in the School of Biology and Ecology at the University of Maine.

Early on in his research at Brandeis, Hall became interested in the biological clocks of Drosophila. His lab discovered not only that the male fruit fly’s courtship song is performed at regular, predictable, one-minute intervals, but also that flies with mutant period (per) genes had courtship song cycles with abnormal short-term rhythms. After this intriguing discovery and armed with the new (then) ammunition of molecular genetics, Hall joined forces with Michael Rosbash, a colleague at Brandeis, to clone the per gene, a goal they reached in 1984. That pioneering advance eventually led them to piece together the auto-regulatory feedback loop that’s at the core of the circadian clock mechanism.

Throughout his distinguished career, Hall has received several professional honors, including the 2003 Genetics Society of America Medal, which is given for outstanding contributions in the field of genetics. He became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2001 and the National Academy of Sciences in 2003.

When not engaged in his other longstanding academic passion—American Civil War history—Hall continues his research into the molecular genetics of Drosophila courtship. “Almost all the clock genes operating in fruit flies work in analogous ways in other living organisms,” he said. “There are now hundreds of people working in labs who owe their jobs to the fruit fly even though they don’t work with fruit flies.”