Mitochondrial Genetics Pioneer Douglas Wallace Awarded Prestigious Franklin Medal

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by Alice Melão |

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Pearson syndrome

Douglas C. Wallace, PhD, a researcher at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), was awarded the 2017 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Science for his contributions to the understanding of mitochondrial biology.

Wallace achieved international prominence as the founder of mitochondrial genetics. His studies into mitochondrial DNA mutations associated with complex human disorders have advanced the progress of medicine.

The Benjamin Franklin Medal, established by the Franklin Institute in 1824, provides international acknowledgement and encouragement for excellence and public recognition of outstanding achievements in science, technology, and industry. Many well-known figures have been awarded with the medal, including Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, Stephen Hawking, Nikola Tesla, and Bill Gates. A total of 117 Franklin Medal laureates have also been the recipient of Nobel prizes.

Mitochondria are the source of all cellular energy, and are often called the powerhouses of cells. They also have their own DNA. Wallace’s research showed that mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is not the same as the genetic material that can be found in the nucleus of all cells, and unlike nuclear DNA, it is inherited only from the mother.

These findings allowed Wallace to reconstruct patterns of human evolution and track ancient human migrations over hundreds of millennia by analyzing shared patterns of mtDNA in modern populations.

Importantly, his research into mitochondrial genetics led Wallace to explore the potential mitochondrial cause of a variety of medical conditions. He was the first to hypothesize that genetic mutations causing damage to mitochondria could contribute to illnesses like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, chronic muscle weakness, movement disorders, and dementia.

His work into the role of mtDNA mutations in human diseases is driving research for promising new therapies for mtDNA mutation-driven diseases and aging. This is also an important component of CHOP’s recently opened research and patient care support program, the Roberts Collaborative for Genetics and Individualized Medicine.

“We are extremely proud that the Franklin Institute has honored Dr. Wallace’s extraordinary contributions to biology and medicine, and are delighted to see him ranked in such distinguished scientific company,” Bryan Wolf, executive vice president and chief scientific officer of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute, said in a press release.

The Franklin Institute produced a brief video of Wallace discussing his work. It can be viewed at