Insights into the mysteries of the heart have earned Eric N. Olson the 2013 March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology.
Olson studies the genetic signals that control muscle cell development—particularly cardiac muscle—at the University of Texas (UT) Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. He and his colleagues have shown that newborn mouse hearts can regenerate to a surprising degree in the first week after birth. They have also identified a number of proteins and microRNAs that promote regeneration in older mouse hearts.
The annual prize, first awarded in 1996 to honor Jonas Salk, recognizes "investigators whose research has profoundly advanced the science that underlies the understanding of birth defects." (Salk received support from the foundation to create his polio vaccine.) Heart defects are some of the most common birth defects, affecting about one out of every 125 children born in the United States.
The prize is well-deserved, says Didier Stainier, who studies heart development at the Max Planck Institute for Heart and Lung Research in Bad Nauheim, Germany. Olson has made "outstanding contributions" to understanding heart development and disease, he says. Deepak Srivastava, who worked as a postdoc under Olson and now studies cardiac development and regeneration at the Gladstone Institutes at the University of California, San Francisco, says Olson "has trained a whole legion of independent investigators who populate the field."
Outside the lab, Olson plays guitar and harmonica in a rock band called the Transactivators. One song, called "Mamas Don't Let Your Stem Cells Grow Up to Be Cowboys," is a tribute to the Annie and Willie Nelson Professorship in Stem Cell Research that he holds at UT Southwestern.
Olson will receive the $250,000 prize at an award ceremony in Washington, D.C., in May.