The Gilbert S. Omenn Prize is awarded by the International Society for Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health for best article published each year on a topic related to evolution in the context of medicine and public health. 

The prize is made possible by a generous donation by Gilbert Omenn, M.D., PhD. Director of the Center for Computational Medicine and Bioinformatics at the University of Michigan where he is a Professor of Internal Medicine, Human Genetics, and Public Health. Dr. Omenn served as Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs as Chief Executive Officer of the University of Michigan Health System from 1997-2002. He is a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.

2014 Winners

The prize for 2014 goes to, “Escape from bacterial iron piracy through rapid evolution of transferrin” by Matthew Barber and Nels Elde from the University of Utah. The article appeared in Science 346:1362-6, 2014. First author Matthew Barber, a postdoctoral student, received the $5,000 prize and presented a talk on March 21 at the 2015 ISEMPH meeting in Tempe Arizona. 

L to R: Gil Omenn, 2014 Award Winner Matthew Barber, 2013 Award Winner Ann Demogines, Randolph Nesse
L to R: Gil Omenn, 2014 Award Winner Matthew Barber, 2013 Award Winner Ann Demogines, Randolph Nesse

The Prize Committee—Sarah Tishkoff, Joe Alcock, Noah Rosenberg, and Alison Galvani—found the paper impressive in its scope, integrating phylogenetic, bioinformatic, and experimental approaches to show that primate hosts and bacterial pathogens causing diseases such as meningitis, gonorrhea, and influenza, have co-evolved in competition for a key growth-limiting nutrient: iron.  Barber & Elde show that natural selection during primate evolution produced specific functional adaptations in the iron-binding protein transferrin that prevent iron piracy by bacterial transferrin binding protein (TbpA). This result is a vivid illustration of the role that natural selection and “nutritional immunity” play in host-pathogen “arms races” mediated by recurrent episodes of positive selection between hosts and pathogens.

Three papers were selected for honorable mention. They are listed below in alphabetical order.

Byars, Sean G., Stephen C. Stearns, and Jacobus J. Boomsma. “Opposite risk patterns for autism and schizophrenia are associated with normal variation in birth size: phenotypic support for hypothesized diametric gene-dosage effects.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 281.1794 (2014): 20140604.

This article uses extensive health registry data from 1978 – 2009 in Denmark to demonstrate associations between birth weight and risk patterns for autism and schizophrenia.  They argue that their findings add support to the hypothesis that genomic conflict and imprinting may play a role in common diseases whose etiology has been difficult to unravel using standard approaches.

Pennings, Pleuni S., Sergey Kryazhimskiy, and John Wakeley. “Loss and recovery of genetic diversity in adapting populations of HIV.” PLoS genetics10.1 (2014): e1004000.

This article uses a population genetics approach to infer effective population size of HIV infections based on the prevalence of “hard and soft” selective sweeps. This study helps to explain actual patterns of drug resistance evolution in patients and suggests evolutionary principles for strategies to keep drug resistance to a minimum.

Warinner, Christina, et al. “Pathogens and host immunity in the ancient human oral cavity.” Nature genetics 46.4 (2014): 336-344.

This article characterizes the microbiota from dental calculus obtained from ~1000 year old human skeletons, observing pathogens associated with disease in modern populations and also antibiotic resistance genes prior to the use of antibiotics to treat disease.