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John E. Heuser, MD

John E. Heuser, MD, professor of cell biology and physiology, is honored for his innovative use of electron microscopy in the medical sciences, particularly for his pioneering development of innovative techniques for preparing medical samples for electron microscopy.

Heuser is known most for developing the “quick-freeze, deep-etch” method of electron microscopy. This technique has allowed scientists worldwide to better visualize the inner workings of living cells, essentially because it provides snapshots of molecular and cellular processes as they are occurring, and does so in lifelike 3D.

Heuser’s own research focused originally on elucidating the mechanism of synaptic transmission, the communication between nerve cells via chemicals secreted across their contacts, or synapses. His research expanded rapidly via many collaborations on such basic problems as how cells take up chemical messages, support themselves physically with their internal scaffoldings known as cytoskeletons, deal with bacteria, viruses, and toxins, and cope with protein deposits that accumulate during aging. Heuser’s electron micrographs, some colleagues say, are as much art as they are science. The images have achieved an iconic status and grace a wide range of medical textbooks and journals. From collaborations with scientists all over the globe, Heuser has gained the reputation of being enthusiastic, creative and generous with his time and thoughts.

Heuser earned his bachelor’s degree from Harvard University in 1964 and his medical degree from Harvard Medical School in 1969, then did postdoctoral work in biophysics at University College in London. He worked as a Public Health Officer at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda and at the University of California, San Francisco, before coming to Washington University in 1980. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Society for Microbiology. He was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences in 2011.

Published: 01/27/2014