The 18th(2002) Award

Award Ceremony
Opening Address
Report on the Process of Selection
Address by His Majesty the Emperor
Congratulatory Address
(Prime Minister)
Congratulatory Address
(Minister of Education)
Acceptance Address
(Professor Masatoshi Nei)
Awards the 2002 International Prize for Biology
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Acceptance Address

Professor Masatoshi Nei

Your Majesties, Ladies, and Gentlemen:

It is a great honor to receive the 2002 International Prize for Biology, which is for the field of evolutionary biology. I understand that His Majesty the Emperor is an enthusiastic biologist and has published many papers on the taxonomy and evolution of Gobioid fishes including a paper on molecular phylogeny. This makes me especially happy to receive this year's award as an evolutionary biologist.

When I was a college student, I read a number of books on evolution. However, I was not particularly interested in this subject, because evolutionary biology at that time was highly speculative and it was difficult to prove or disprove various arguments presented for explaining evolution. I was then interested in population genetics, in which short-term evolution was studied by using mathematical theory and experimental verification. I was particularly interested in developing mathematical theory by which one could predict short-term genetic change of biological populations.

It was in the 1960's and the 1970's that various molecular techniques were introduced in the study of evolution. Before this time, the only way to identify homologous genes between different individuals was to conduct hybridization experiments, but in principle this could not be done between different species. Therefore, most experimental studies of population genetics or evolution were confined to individuals within species. Introduction of the new molecular techniques radically changed this situation. It removed the species barrier and made it possible to study evolutionary change of genes between distantly related organisms even between bacteria and humans. This opened up the new field of molecular evolutionary biology. One of the pioneers who developed various mathematical theories of molecular evolution was my mentor, Professor Motoo Kimura, who was the recipient of the 1988 International Prize for Biology.

Although the conceptual framework of molecular evolutionary biology was laid out largely by Professor Kimura and others, it was still necessary to develop statistical methods by which one can infer the evolutionary histories of populations and species and test various evolutionary theories with empirical data. I initiated this type of work around 1970 and tried to make evolutionary biology a testable science rather than a speculative one. I continued this work for over 30 years and applied the statistical methods developed to find some general principles of evolution.

During these years, I was very fortunate to have many students and collaborators, who joined in my efforts to understand evolution at the molecular level. I should also mention that the statistical study of molecular evolution was initiated not only by my group but also by other investigators, some of whom are attending this ceremony. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of them who participated in our joint venture to make evolutionary biology a quantitative and hypothesis-testing discipline.

I have been a man of curiosity from the time of childhood. I feel very happy when I find some explanation even for a small mystery. This is especially so when I discover a simple rule underlying a seemingly complicated phenomenon. In 1960 and 1961, I visited the United States for the first time for over one year. At that time Japan was poor, and it was important to improve the economic status. By contrast, the United States was rich and allowed scientists to do both basic and applied research. In fact, original research was strongly encouraged. This environment inflamed my interest in doing research driven by curiosity, and in 1969 I moved to the United States to do basic research.

Japan is now a rich country, and I understand both basic and applied research is encouraged. I also hear that the universities and research institutes in Japan are now under reorganization to enhance original research and accountability to the public. With this new environment, I am confident that in the near future Japan will play an important role in the international scientific community as well as the world economy.

I am most grateful for the Selection Committee of the International Prize for Biology for recognizing the importance of molecular study of evolution and for selecting me as the recipient of this prestigious award. I humbly accept this award as a representative of the many scientists who have contributed to the progress of molecular evolutionary biology during the last 30 years.

I am very grateful for all the nice words that have been said about me. I also would like to thank all of you who have come here to attend the award-presentation ceremony. I finally would like to thank my wife, Nobuko, and my children, Keitaro and Maromi, for their patience and understanding while I devoted a large portion of my life to scientific research. Without their support and affection, I could not have accomplished any significant work.