A Japanese physicist and two Belgian geneticists have won the 1998 Japan Prize, one of the world's richest science awards. The researchers were hailed for basic research achievements that led to new applications in electronics and the development of transgenic plants for agriculture. Physicist Leo Esaki will receive 50 million yen, about US$391,000, and geneticists Jozef Schell and Marc Van Montagu will each get 25 million yen, about US$196,000.
Esaki, 72, president of the University of Tsukuba in Japan, was awarded the prize for the category "Generation and Design of New Materials Creating Novel Functions." He won for his work on superlattice crystals, which are composed of layered thin films. These crystals exhibit a number of novel electronic properties, such as the ability to carry current at discreet voltages. The technology is at the heart of semiconductor lasers used in optical telecommunications systems, sensors in wireless communications devices, and in devices that read stored data in the coming generation of computer hard disks. Esaki's work "has already led to many important developments, but I think even more important developments in the basic structure of materials will follow," says Shojiro Asai, director of research and development for Hitachi Ltd.
Schell, 62, of the Max Planck Institute in Cologne, Germany, and Van Montagu, 64, of the Flanders Interuniversity Institute for Biotechnology in Ghent, Belgium, will share the prize in the category "Biotechnology in Agricultural Sciences." They were honored for developing a method of inserting foreign genes into a plant, leading to transgenic plants that could resist insects or diseases. "This is the basic research underpinning subsequent work on transgenic plants," says Tadashi Asahi, a biotech professor at Fukui Prefectural University in Japan and a member of the selection committee.
The winners will receive their prizes in Tokyo in April. For those interested in speculating on next-year's winners, the organization that oversees the competition--The Science and Technology Foundation of Japan--has announced the categories for the 1999 prize: "Information Technologies" and "Molecular Recognition and Dynamics in Bioscience."