Kasturi Haldar, PLOS Pathogens Editor-in-Chief, reflects on Elisabetta Ullu’s pioneering contributions to the understanding of molecular mechanisms of RNAi in T. brucei.
On the eve of 25th anniversary of the premier Molecular Parasitology Meeting (MPM) held at the Marine Biological laboratory at Woods Hole MA, we reflect on the tremendous accomplishments of the field presented at this meeting, ranging from leading therapeutics in global parasitic diseases as well as fundamental mechanisms enabling development of treatments in seemingly disparate disease states, like tumor biology and autoimmunity. But the excitement is burdened with hearts full of sadness that Dr. Elisabetta Ullu, a beacon in the field and past MPM organizer, passed away on September 8, 2014 after a heroic battle against cancer.
Dr. Ullu joined the faculty of Yale University School of Medicine as an Assistant Professor in 1984, where she rose through the ranks to Professor of Medicine and Cell Biology. Her laboratory pioneered in molecular mechanisms of RNA biology in the protozoan parasite Trypanosoma brucei, the causative agent of African sleeping sickness and a portal for RNA based mechanisms at cellular and organismal levels. Professor Ullu and Prof. Chris Tschudi (her partner in science and life) discovered the novel mechanism of ‘RNA interference’ (RNAi) by which T. brucei blocks the expression of its genes. Broad acceptance of the central role of RNAi for cells in general, was a 2006 Nobel Prize shared by Andrew Fire and Craig Mello, for their work in nematodes. Ullu’s findings were transformational to determine functions of proteins encoded by parasite genes, which is key to the discovery of new therapies urgently needed for sleeping sickness. She received many honors and accolades for her work, the most recent being the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s inaugural Alice and C. C. Wang award in 2012, for seminal contribution to the field of Molecular Parasitology.
Professor Ullu was also passionate about the practice of science through training and dissemination. She mentored untold numbers of colleagues and junior scientists well beyond her laboratory, through her keen assessment of their work in scientific meetings, journals, expert review groups and even one-on-one, over coffee. Her gaze could be intimidating, but fair and inspired. Its purpose was to distill excellence and move the science and the researcher forward. She was committed to the open exchange of research results and an active member of the Editorial Board of the open access journal PLOS Pathogens. Her generosity in sharing her outstanding intellect and worldwide recognition was exemplary, and leaves us humbled, grateful and immeasurably enriched.
Kasturi Haldar, Ph.D. Editor-in-Chief, PLOS Pathogens, is the Julius Nieuwland Chair of Biological Sciences and Parsons-Quinn Director of the Center for Rare and Neglected Diseases, University of Notre Dame. Kasturi was a friend and colleague of Ellisabetta Ullu, and worked with her on the Editorial Board of PLOS Pathogens.