Dr. James Priess elected to National Academy of Sciences

Basic scientist selected for his contributions to understanding the genes and mechanisms involved in development
Dr. James Priess
Dr. James Priess, who was elected Tuesday to the National Academy of Sciences, studies how animals grow from a single fertilized egg into a multicellular creature. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. James Priess, a developmental biologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, was named to the National Academy of Sciences Tuesday.

Election to the NAS is one of the country’s most prestigious scientific honors. Priess joins a cadre of nearly 2,400 U.S. members and 475 foreign associates of the academy.

A member of Fred Hutch’s Basic Sciences Division, Priess studies how the building blocks of an animal — its cells — come together to form three-dimensional organs as animals grow from a single fertilized egg into a complex, multicellular organism.

“I’ve always been fascinated by structure and anatomy,” said Priess, who has led a laboratory team at Fred Hutch for the past 30 years. 

Dr. Mark Groudine, a Fred Hutch molecular biologist and special adviser to the President and Director’s Office, praised his colleague’s impressive body of work over the decades.

“Jim and his colleagues have made several fundamental contributions to our understanding of how cells differentiate and assemble into an animal,” Groudine said. “Jim’s work is a model for developmental biologists, combining the use of genetics, cell biology, molecular biology and biochemistry to solve fundamental questions in a creative and rigorous fashion.”

Priess and his team uncovered how cells find their developmental fate in the microscopic worm known as Caenorhabditis elegans, which is commonly used in many studies of basic biology. This animal is much simpler than us, but there are parallels that can be drawn between worm and human, Priess said. Many of the genes his team has discovered over the years that act in C. elegans development also exist in humans. Specifically, he and his colleagues found new proteins involved in how cells talk to each other in early development that are also implicated in some types of Alzheimer’s disease.

But there are key differences too, differences that make the worm interesting and exciting as a subject of study, Priess said. Unlike humans, the animal is adapted for very rapid development, growing from an egg to an adult in just three days. And unlike many of our cells, the worms’ early embryonic cells are limited to a particular fate — the same cell in a developing embryo will always give rise to the same precise set of neurons in the adult, for example.

Of his many discoveries, Priess said he is most proud of uncovering how this programming works, a phenomenon that seems to be unique to simple creatures like the worm. He and his laboratory team found a series of molecules and mechanisms that lead to what he terms a “combinatorial code” of cell fates in the simple creature, combining aspects intrinsic to the cells themselves as well as interactions between the developing cells that push them toward specific fates in the adult animal.

Although one of the proteins involved in that process that Priess discovered is related to a human protein, humans don’t appear to use the same cell-intrinsic part of the process in our development, Priess said. That’s probably because our development is slower and our cells are not as constrained in their fates as those of the simple worm.

“Jim’s a phenomenon in the worm world,” said Dr. Jonathan Cooper, senior vice president and director of the Basic Sciences Division. “He's wowed us over the years with his penetrating experiments and encyclopedic knowledge of how a worm develops from egg to adult.”

Cooper described how his longtime colleague would draw on a blackboard from memory the timeline of how each cell divides and progresses in a developing worm embryo. The developmental biologist’s way of thinking about the growing 3-D structure of the microscopic worm in parallel with how the cells grow and change over time — the fourth dimension — was mind-boggling to him, Cooper said.

“Jim’s a true four-dimensional scientist,” Cooper said.

Several other Fred Hutch scientists have been elected to the NAS, most recently in 2015, when genetics and biology researcher Dr. Sue Biggins gained membership.

Priess, who was also an investigator of the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute from 1994 to 2011, said he’s honored and humbled by the academy’s recognition.

“I’m honored for the recognition for me and several outstanding colleagues that have worked over the years in my lab,” he said. “I’m also indebted to the Hutch’s support.”

Rachel Tompa is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. She has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of California, San Francisco and a certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Follow her on Twitter @Rachel_Tompa.

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