UC Berkeley’s ‘revolutionary’ findings over 150 years tackle world’s biggest challenges

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From discoveries in physics to advancements in medicine and technology, UC Berkeley has been creating solutions and addressing the world’s biggest challenges for 150 years.

Here is a small history of those revolutionary findings and the oldest laboratory in the national laboratory system.

The Radiation Laboratory

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, more commonly known as Berkeley Lab, was founded in 1931 by campus physics professor Ernest O. Lawrence and is currently located in the hills east of campus.

At its inception, however, Berkeley Lab was known as the Radiation Laboratory, and was where Lawrence conducted research with his invention, the cyclotron, which was an early version of a particle accelerator. This invention and the research he conducted using it led to him being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1939.

As war approached in the early 1940s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the construction of a nuclear bomb. Lawrence gathered large teams of scientists and engineers and put them to work in large groups, and he is remembered as the pioneer for this style of research today.

The lab was renamed Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 1971, and 13 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to Berkeley Lab researchers over the years.

Discovery of chemical elements

Perhaps some of the most well-known discoveries in Berkeley’s research history are the 16 chemical elements discovered at Berkeley Lab.

The elements include technetium, astatine, neptunium, plutonium, americium, curium, californium, einsteinium, fermium, mendelevium, nobelium, rutherfordium, dubnium, lawrencium, seaborgium and of course, berkelium. The last of these elements were named after Lawrence, and UC Berkeley chemist and former Chancellor Glenn Seaborg.

Seaborg was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1951 with campus physics professor Edwin McMillan for his discovery of plutonium and McMillan’s discovery of neptunium, both of which were used to make nuclear weapons.

Accelerating expansion of the universe and dark energy

In 1998, campus cosmologists Saul Perlmutter, Adam Reiss and Alex Filippenko, along with international colleagues, observed that the expansion of our universe is accelerating.

“You’d expect it to be slowing down because galaxies and stars are pulling on each other,” Filippenko said. “We found that, instead, it is speeding up in its expansion and it is accelerating.”

According to Filippenko, this finding implied that a cosmic effect similar to anti-gravity exists, which has been named dark energy, that makes up 70 percent of the universe. Perlmutter, Reiss and their colleague Brian Schmidt were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2011 for their findings.

“Never in my wildest dreams as a kid did I think that I would be involved in a discovery that ended up being so revolutionary,” Filippenko said.

CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing

Campus molecular biology and biochemistry professor Jennifer Doudna revolutionized biomedical technology when she and Emmanuelle Charpentier, a French biologist at the Max Planck Society in Germany, published their paper “A programmable dual-RNA-guided DNA endonuclease in adaptive bacterial immunity” in 2012, proposing the use of CRISPR-Cas9 as a genome editing tool.

Since that landmark paper, researchers have sought to develop practical applications of CRISPR systems and engineer improved proteins for gene editing. Researchers at the campus Doudna Lab have been looking to understand CRISPR-Cas immunity mechanisms and the functions of Cas proteins to develop new CRISPR-based tools for biotechnology applications, such as to replace defective genes.

Phil Zhang is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @philzhangDC.

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