UNC Lineberger’s Griffith elected into National Academy of Sciences

A pioneer in high-resolution electron microscopy, Jack Griffith, PhD, earned one of the most prestigious honors in science during a career packed with distinguished research and collaborations that began prior to him coming to UNC-Chapel Hill in 1978.

UNC Lineberger’s Griffith elected into National Academy of Sciences click to enlarge Jack Griffith, PhD

CHAPEL HILL – Jack D. Griffith, PhD, Kenan Distinguished Professor in the UNC School of Medicine Department of Microbiology and Immunology and Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, was elected into the National Academy of Sciences.

Griffith, a member of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, is one of 84 new members and 21 foreign associates being recognized for their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research. Scientists are elected by their peers, and NAS membership is one of the highest scientific honors conferred in the United States.

Griffith has conducted extensive research utilizing high-resolution electron microscopy to visualize protein-DNA interactions. His laboratory’s work seeks to answer basic questions of how DNA and proteins interact in cancer and other diseases.

“It’s hard to express how proud I am of Jack and his accomplishments,” said UNC Lineberger Director Shelton Earp, MD. “This honor is overdue. Jack created the first visualization of protein-DNA interaction, and his science has instructed all of us about the inner workings of the cell and its regulation.

What is remarkable about Jack’s body of work is the physical beauty of his photo micrographs,” Earp added. “They have graced the covers of the world’s top journals, and they have inspired generations of young scientists to explore the intricacy of DNA.”

Griffith grew up in Alaska and received his bachelor’s degree in physics at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and his doctorate at Caltech. Following postdoctoral fellowships in laboratories at Stanford University and Cornell University, Griffith joined UNC Lineberger and the UNC School of Medicine Department of Microbiology and Immunology as an associate professor in 1978.

During his graduate studies, Griffith used electron microscopy to visualize DNA polymerase I, a key protein E. coli uses to replicate its DNA. It was the first image taken by an electron microscope of DNA bound to a known protein. In 1999, Griffith and a colleague at the Rockefeller University used electron microscopy to demonstrate that the ends of human chromosomes are looped back on themselves, providing a crucial new understanding with direct relevance to aging and cancer. His UNC Lineberger laboratory serves as an electron microscopy core facility, offering its expertise in visualizing the microscopic world to further research across laboratories.

He has received numerous awards and honors, including election into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2005 and the Grand Gold medal of Comenius University.

Outside of his work in science, he flies Alaskan bush planes, restores old Jaguar cars, and helps tend horses with his wife on their “farmette” in Chapel Hill.

Griffith's curiosity once took him to New Mexico -- thousands of feet beneath Roswell -- where his team discovered ancient cellulose encased in a salt deposit 250 million years old. It was the oldest macromolecule native to Earth ever found.

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