Although primarily a chemist by training, Davis has used his deep understanding of biochemical and physical chemical principles to address problems of fundamental importance to the fields of molecular genetics and genomics. He has, in the words of a nominator for the 2011 Gruber Genetics Prize, “provided the indispensable infrastructure that has driven the astonishing pace of genetic discoveries, as well as provided key technical, intellectual and conceptual contributions to a breathtaking range of genetic problems.”
His contributions have been numerous and profound and include a long string of “firsts.” Early on in his career, while in graduate school at the California Institute of Technology, Davis developed one of the first mapping methods for DNA, as well as some of the earliest cloning vectors (DNA molecules that carry foreign DNA into a host cell, where the foreign DNA can then be replicated). Later, while working on the genome and biology of Saccaharomyces cerevisiae (baker’s yeast) in his own lab at Stanford University, Davis developed the first artificially constructed chromosomes, which are now routinely used to clone large genes and to map complex genomes. He also described the very first case of what is now known as genome editing, the ability to replace any nucleotide in the yeast genome with any other nucleotide.
In 1980, Davis described how sequence variants in the genomes of humans and other species could provide genetic markers for making a genetic and physical map of the human genome, a finding that helped launch the field of genomics. A few years later, his lab showed how DNA libraries could be searched with protein-finding antibodies, a technique that has made it possible for scientists to identify genes for important proteins, including in humans. Davis also contributed to the development of the very first microarrays, tools that enable scientists to analyze the gene expression of thousands of genes simultaneously. He then went on to help standardize this technology, paving the way for other scientists to use it for clinical applications.
“He has revolutionized the field of genetics for many organisms, from yeast to plants to humans,” noted a second nominator for the 2011 Gruber Genetics Prize. For Davis, however, his work has been all about solving problems. “I really enjoy working on problems that others think are unsolvable,” he says.