A look behind the genetic decoder

Dr. Nayef Jarrous, along with his wife Ghada and their daughter, receives a bouquet of flowers in honor of his winning Hebrew University’s Yoram Ben-Porath Prize.When Nayef Jarrous was growing up in the northern Israeli town of Shfaram, he encountered …

Dr. Nayef Jarrous, along with his wife Ghada and their daughter, receives a bouquet of flowers in honor of his winning Hebrew University’s Yoram Ben-Porath Prize.When Nayef Jarrous was growing up in the northern Israeli town of Shfaram, he encountered a situation which youngsters around the world would prefer to avoid.

The drawing teacher for his elementary school class was his father.

“I thought I was the best pupil, but he always treated me like I wasn’t as good as some of the others because he didn’t want to show the other students that he was favoring me. I always complained to him that I should have been getting the highest grades,” Jarrous good-naturedly recalls.

And in the end, Jarrous proved to his father that he really was the best pupil. The 39-year old Israeli has recently been named 2003′s outstanding young researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and awarded the Yoram Ben-Porath Prize.

Jarrous, who teaches in the Department of Molecular Biology at the Hebrew University Faculty of Medicine, has conducted groundbreaking research in achieving greater understanding of the early processing of small RNA molecules involved in the complex system whereby genetic information in DNA is converted into protein through RNA. He was a corresponding author of an article on this subject in the October 2003 issue of the journal Molecular Cell.

But it all started in Shfaram, a town of 30,000, where Jarrous was born into a Christian Arab family.

“I went through the public school system there, and my mother was also a teacher of French, but I was never assigned her,” Jarrous tells ISRAEL21c. “In Israeli high schools you have to pick a specialization and I chose biology, I suppose because I just liked the subject.”

“After high school, I applied to both Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University. I was accepted to both, and chose HU without a moment’s hesitation. To my mind, it’s more prestigious, and I was also ready to leave the north and move to Jerusalem to be on my own.”

At Hebrew University, Jarrous studied general biology, and did his masters thesis in molecular biology under advisor Dr. Raymond Kaempfer. He then continued working with Kaempfer in his lab toward his PHD.

“Nayef is very dedicated and there’s always a sparkle in his eye,” recalls Kaempfer. “He had a very strong ability to concentrate which allowed him to do first class work and blossom while he was pursuing his PHD. He opened up personally which was wonderful to watch, and at the same time his work resulted in important publications, which remain important until today.”

Under Kaempfer, Jarrous’s PHD work involved a unique collaboration with two other students – Yitzhak Ben Asouli, an Israeli Jew and Farhat Osman, and Israeli Moslem.

“They collaborated in the most fruitful manner and became good friends,” said Kaempfer. “Our lab was known as a microcosm of coexistence.”

Kaempfer arranged for Jarrous to do his post-doctoral training at Yale under the tutelage of Nobel prize laureate Sydney Altman who won a Nobel in chemistry in 1989 for his work with enzymes. Jarrous and his wife Ghada – who also has a Ph. D. in molecular biology from Hebrew University and now working on her postdoctoral research – set out for the U.S. in 1996.

“Yale was a different world from what I was accustomed. I liked it very much,” says Jarrous. “You encounter people from everywhere, from every corner of the world. I also had a wonderful advisor in Professor Altman, and was fortunate to join a laboratory that did exceptional science.”

Following three years at the American university, Jarrous applied for a tenure track position at HU and joined the faculty as a lecturer in 2000 in the department of molecular biology.

“When he came back, he returned to work in my lab, where he began his independent career. Gradually he built up his own lab and set off on his own,” says Kaempfer. Jarrous has flourished in his own lab, and in his teaching career.

“I enjoy the balance between research and teaching. They go together. It’s a big responsibility, but it’s important to come into touch with a new generation of students and pass on information. In addition to teaching, I run a research lab with eight active researchers including a post-doc student and three PhD students. I supervise their research and am in charge of their programs,” explains Jarrous.

When asked to describe the work he does with RNA, it’s easy to understand why Jarrous is a successful teacher, as he is patient with even the most basic questions.

“What we basically do is study the flow of the genetic information from DNA to RNA to protein, focusing on the step from RNA to protein. Specifically we study the maturation pathways of transfer RNA molecules (called tRNA) in human cells,” says Jarrous.

“tRNA is an adapter which can decode our genetic code which is in the messenger RNA to protein. We apply biochemistry and cell biology to look at the processing machines of tRNA molecules in human cells. Nobody knows very much about the maturation pathways in human cells. Through our pioneering work, we now know much more about the function of the cell and about genetic information ? more specifically on the maturation of molecules that decode our genetic information.”

For those who want the bottom line as to how this research can have applications out there in the scientific world, Jarrous is just as succinct.

“A genetic disease can affect the DNA and in this way affect the flow of genetic information. Knowing the normal situation is very critical in order to treat the disease with genetic therapy. We do pure scientific studies with no connection to any kind of medical research, but we are thinking about that in the future.”

His award, the Ben-Porath Prize, is given annually by the president of the Hebrew University to honor the memory of the former rector and president of the university, who was killed along with his wife and young son in a car crash near Eilat in 1992.

Jarrous has also won other accolades during his relatively short career. He’s a recipient of the Kahanoff Foundation fellowship and has won research grants from, among others, the Israel Science Foundation, the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation and the Abisch-Frenkel Foundation of Switzerland.

Jarrous says that he’s been afforded all the opportunities of advancing professionally as any Israeli citizen.

“I’ve never faced any discrimination in my professional career due to being a minority. I never had any doubt in my mind that I would finish my studies, my PhD, go to America and return and work in Israel. I’ve never felt that I’ve been treated differently.”