Prize Medal lecture 2021: Professor Joan Steitz

Posted on May 27, 2021   by Laura Cox

The Prize Medal is awarded annually to an outstanding microbiologist who is a global leader in their field and whose work has had a far-reaching impact beyond the field of microbiology. The 2021 Prize Medal was awarded to Professor Joan Steitz. Professor Steitz gave the lecture titled 'Viral noncoding RNAs: approaching answers' at the Microbiology Society's Annual Conference Online 2021.

© Robert Lisak

Professor Steitz began her lecture by noting what an honour it is to receive the Prize Medal, reflecting fondly on her time spent in the UK as a postdoc at the University of Cambridge’s MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology. Professor Steitz established her own laboratory at Yale University in 1970, where she began to research noncoding RNAs, their purpose and their role in the function and life cycles of viruses. As viruses have such small genomes, Professor Steitz suggests that noncoding RNAs in viruses must play an extremely important role.

Professor Steitz went on to discuss her research into viruses in the family Herpesviridae, discussing the genome, life cycle phases and some of the diseases that viruses in this family cause. Her group used primate cells to establish the roles of noncoding RNAs in a number of herpesviruses, focusing specifically on a noncoding RNA called PAN RNA, which exists within the genome of Karposi Sarcoma associated herpesvirus (KSHV).

KSHV causes cancers, particularly in people who are immunocompromised. Kaposi’s Sarcoma is a common disease in people with AIDs. In the virus’ lytic phase, KSHV produces huge amounts of PAN RNA, but the function of this RNA is yet unknown. Steitz went on to discuss ENE, an RNA structure that protects PAN RNA from degradation. The group went on to investigate whether other viruses have noncoding RNAs with similar protections and found ENE-like structures in the RNAs PAN, MALAT1 and MENβ. Looking further into the role of ENEs, the group moved away from viral genomes and found thousands of KHSV-PAN ENEs in plant and fungal genomes.

After a thorough review of ENE research, Professor Steitz went on to discuss some of her group’s more recent works into double ENEs, explaining some of their more unexpected findings and rounding off the talk with some future questions the group hope to answer. Joan completed the talk by thanking the audience and acknowledging the contribution of many of her colleagues.

After the Lecture, Microbiology Society President Professor Judith Armitage and Professor Steitz had a short Q&A about Joan’s career, professional development and how she overcame some of the early challenges in her career. 

To learn more about Professor Joan Steitz's research read our recent Q&A.

You can view Professor Steitz’s full Prize Lecture below.

Prize Medal lecture 2021