Skip to main content

Road Less Traveled Leads to National Academy of Sciences for Biochemist Brenda L. Bass, Ph.D.

(SALT LAKE CITY)—Distinguished professor of biochemistry Brenda L. Bass, Ph.D., who has devoted her career to understanding mysterious double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) molecules, received one of the highest honors in science today when she was elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.

Bass, also H.A. and Edna Benning Endowed Chair in Biochemistry at the University of Utah School of Medicine, is among 84 U.S. scientist-scholars and 21 foreign associates from 15 countries elected by the Academy, headquartered in Washington, D.C. Her election brings to at least 40 the number of current and former University of Utah researchers who've been elected to one of the three National Academies, which also include the National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine. The National Academies recognize achievements in their fields and, with National Research Council, advises the federal government and other organizations about science, engineering and health policy.

Bass had no idea of her election until she started receiving congratulatory emails and texts this morning from people who heard she'd received the honor. "I'm overwhelmed, as anyone who gets in the National Academy of Sciences probably is," she says. "I'm really excited there are people who respect my science enough to have elected me." She thanked the students, scientists and staff who've worked in her lab since she joined the University faculty in 1989 as well as colleagues who supported her election.

Bass' research career has been one of following the road less traveled. dsRNA is an elusive molecule whose biological roles are not fully understood. The human body makes dsRNAs that serve a number of functions, but viruses also make the molecules, which potentially can cause problems if the body gets confused about when to mount an immune response to fight infections.

Bass believes that sometimes dsRNA encoded within human and animal genomes binds with particular proteins to signal environmental and metabolic stress even without a virus being present. In 2011, she received a $2.5 million National Institutes of Health Director's Pioneer Award, one of the institute's highest honors, to study the process that regulates the dsRNA-based "SOS" signal for stress. If her hypothesis proves true, it opens the door for potential new drugs to treat the inflammatory component of many diseases.

Wesley I. Sundquist, Ph.D., co-chair of the Department of Biochemistry, says this type of creative and independent research into dsRNA, which few other scientists have pursued, has enabled Bass to make her mark as a scientist. "She doesn't follow the crowd and works independently – and that's where people make interesting and important discoveries," Sundquist says.

As a University of Colorado graduate student, Bass worked in the lab of Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Thomas Cech, Ph.D., who discovered ribozymes, RNA molecules that catalyze chemical reactions in cells. There, she made the important discovery that the process that ribozymes use to catalyze chemical reactions is quite similar to the process that protein enzymes use for that purpose. The pioneering work laid the foundation for research that many labs continue to this day.

At the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, working as a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of another internationally regarded researcher, the late Harold Weintraub, Ph.D., Bass discovered an entire new class of enzymes, called ADARs. Those enzymes target regions of messenger RNA (mRNA) and change the information they carry, contributing to the spectacular diversity required for a functioning nervous system, in particular learning and memory.

Bass is the second member of the University of Utah Department of Biochemistry to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences in as many years. Last year, Sundquist received the honor. He gives much of the credit for the department's excellence in biochemistry to former co-chairs Dana Carroll, Ph.D., now a distinguished professor of biochemistry, and Martin Rechsteiner, Ph.D., distinguished professor emeritus, who rejuvenated the department with many good hires.

Along with this latest honor, Bass also is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and in 2010 received the University of Utah's Distinguished Scholarly and Creative Research Award.

University of Utah Vice President for Research Thomas N. Parks, Ph.D., said Bass is not only a "deep and strategic" scientific thinker whose research has been highly influential in biochemistry but also a committed mentor to trainees and an institutionally-minded faculty member. "It is truly gratifying that such a thoughtful and accomplished U of U colleague has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences."

Read more about Brenda Bass' research: "Friend or Foe? Enzyme Discerns Whether RNA is Viral or Not"