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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

December 2020

DNA Repair special issue honors renowned expert Sam Wilson

During a career spanning more than 55 years, Sam Wilson made critical discoveries on a DNA repair process called base excision repair.

Sam Wilson, M.D. Wilson and his collaborators have published hundreds of scientific papers on DNA repair pathways and related topics. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

A special issue of the journal DNA Repair highlights the scientific contributions of Sam Wilson, M.D., lead researcher for the NIEHS DNA Repair and Nucleic Acid Enzymology Group. The issue was titled “Tribute to Samuel H. Wilson: Shining Light on Base Excision DNA Repair.”

Many of the two dozen articles were written by former colleagues and current NIEHS researchers, including Bill Beard, Ph.D., a staff scientist in Wilson’s group, and Bill Copeland, Ph.D., head of the Genome Integrity and Structural Biology Laboratory and the Mitochondrial DNA Replication Group.

To celebrate Wilson’s illustrious career, Beard had several copies of the issue and champagne delivered to Wilson’s house on Oct. 17. The delivery coincided with a Zoom call that took place the day before the issue’s release.

The special issue and the purpose of the call were kept secret from Wilson. He was told that he would be discussing a manuscript with collaborator Ben Van Houten, Ph.D. “I was totally surprised and delighted by the special issue and the Zoom meeting,” said Wilson, who is editor in chief of DNA Repair and holds a secondary appointment in the NIEHS Epigenetics and Stem Cell Biology Laboratory.

Van Houten, a former colleague of Wilson at NIEHS, now at the University of Pittsburgh, credited Helene Hodak, Ph.D., from journal publisher Elsevier, as the key person in the scheme. “Without her tireless help and support this issue would not have been possible,” he said.

DNA Repair September 2020 cover Bill Beard and Helene Hodak created the cover image for the tribute issue. (Photo courtesy of DNA Repair)

Editorial accolades

Originally, Wilson’s colleagues had planned a special symposium at NIEHS in early August as a tribute to his contributions. But the event was canceled due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

So Van Houten, Hodak, and Phil Hanwalt, Ph.D., invited the planned speakers, along with associate editors of the journal, to contribute to the special issue instead. Van Houten and Hanawalt, editor emeritus of DNA Repair and professor emeritus of Stanford University, both wrote editorials.

Hanawalt called Wilson a pioneer and leader in the field of genomic maintenance. Wilson also provided generous and thoughtful support as a mentor and colleague, he said. “Sam’s passion for science and his genuine warm personality have graced the DNA repair field and the larger community of nucleic acid scientists for nearly half a century,” he wrote.

“He has greatly enriched this journal, with state-of-the-art review articles and reports of new discoveries,” Hanawalt added. “Under his leadership this journal has become the most reliable source for information on developments in the field of genomic maintenance and DNA repair.”

Phil Hanawalt, Ph.D. Hanawalt is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and internationally recognized scientist. (Photo courtesy of Phil Hanawalt)

Sharpening scientific minds

According to Hanawalt, Wilson excelled in explaining scientific details using a straight forward manner that could be understood by students and others. “His lecturing style is exemplary in its clarity and logical progression from results to substantiated conclusions,” he wrote.

“Sam Wilson has mentored and directly trained many who are now leaders in DNA repair and related fields,” Hanawalt added. “Former participants have commented that Sam’s lab is ideal for sharpening one’s thinking and ability to develop unique ideas as an independent investigator.”

Van Houten praised Wilson’s scientific leadership as tremendously stimulating and thought-provoking. “He constantly challenged us to do better science in an exercise he called ‘problem definition’: picking the best problem to attack and then acquiring and validating the best set of tools to help answer that scientific question,” he wrote.

“Besides being an exceptional mentor, Sam also finds time to create and nurture scientifically powerful collaborations that have contributed to his outstanding productivity,” Van Houten added.

DNA repair discoveries

Wilson focused his research on DNA damage and a DNA repair pathway called base excision repair (BER). This process is a key cellular defense mechanism against the harmful effects of exposures to chemicals and physical agents.

Bill Copeland, Ph.D. Copeland co-authored an article about genome integrity in the special issue of DNA Repair. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

His research revealed that there are multiple BER subpathways in mammalian cells, each tailored to a specific type of DNA damage. Wilson’s group also provided critical insight into a protein called DNA polymerase beta, which is involved in BER in mammals.

“Knowledge of the BER process has key implications for environmental health,” Wilson explained. “Many biological indicators of exposure are derived from this knowledge, as is an understanding of individual disease susceptibility to environmental agents. Many therapeutic interventions in current cancer treatment target alterations in genomic DNA, and emerging new insight into the molecular basis of certain neurodegenerative diseases has implicated the BER process.”

Hanawalt PC. 2020. Tribute to Sam Wilson: Shining a light on base excision DNA repair. DNA Repair 93:102933.

Van Houten B. 2020. Graphical snapshot of Samuel H. Wilson. DNA Repair 93:102934.

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