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The University of Utah's rich history of creative research in genetics is again in the spotlight after biochemist Dana Carroll won a distinguished service prize from the Genetics Society of America.

For his work perfecting "gene targeting," the process that won U. geneticist Mario Capecchi the Nobel Prize, Dana Carroll has been chosen for the 2012 Novitski Prize. The GSA launched the prize in 2008 to honor the late geneticist Edward Novitski in recognition of "extraordinary creativity and intellectual ingenuity in solving significant problems in genetic research." In 2009, U. biologist Kent Golic won the Novitski, one of five prizes awarded by the GSA.

Creativity is critical in scientific research, Carroll said in a news release, but it rarely involves a brilliant idea coming from thin air.

"Most often breakthroughs involve the coming together of threads from several different research areas, and this was true of our development of ZFNs as tools for genome engineering," said Carroll, who stepped down as chairman of the U. biochemistry department in 2009 after 24 years in the position.

He began studying proteins called ZFNs, an acronym for zinc finger nucleases, in the mid-1990s. Johns Hopkins University researchers had developed the proteins, and Carroll understood their potential to make gene targeting more efficient. His work allows researchers to introduce engineered changes in genes of interest into living experimental organisms.

"To me and the people in my lab at the time, investigating ZFNs as tools for genome engineering seemed like a pretty obvious path to try," he says. "There was evidence that if you could make a break in the DNA, you could stimulate a gene mutation. The insight my lab had was that ZFNs looked very promising as gene-targeting tools."

By allowing scientists to manipulate gene sequences and produce mutations in virtually any gene, gene targeting makes it possible to determine functions of individual genes and create animal models to study human diseases.

Carroll decried what he sees as a bias against creativity, the trait celebrated by the Novitski prize, in the current grant review process.

"There is a strong tendency for review panels to favor projects that are guaranteed to succeed, rather than those that are innovative," Carroll said. "Also, federal funding is declining in an era when we have the most powerful tools we have ever possessed to learn how the world works and to improve the human condition."