Thomas Petes named Chair of the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at Duke University Medical Center

DURHAM, N.C. — Thomas D. Petes, Ph.D., a professor in the department of biology and a member of the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has been named the new chair of the molecular genetics and microbiology (MGM) department at Duke University Medical Center, Duke officials announced Thursday.

Pending approval by the provost, president, and board of trustees, Petes will begin his duties at Duke this month and expects to have his laboratory up and running by 2005.

Petes, 57, specializes in the study of yeast as a model for understanding genomic instability and chromosomal aberrations commonly found in cancer cells. He succeeds Joseph Nevins, Ph.D., who became director of the Center for Applied Genomics and Technology, part of the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy (IGSP), in November 2003.

“Tom is an outstanding scientist — a first-rate scientific mind,” said R. Sanders Williams, M.D., dean of the Duke University School of Medicine. “His leadership and expertise will push the MGM department to the next level by building on the group’s many strengths and encouraging a global approach to the study of genetics. We are pleased to welcome him.”

Petes’ group has discovered striking similarities between yeast and human cells in the structure and function of proteins involved in DNA repair and in the protection of the tips of chromosomes. In turn, those similarities have yielded new insight into genetic defects underlying cancer. For example, yeast cells lacking particular DNA mismatch repair enzymes exhibit genetic instabilities also found in human colorectal cancer cells, a finding that suggested the repair defects might play an important role in the disease process, he said.

“New technology has opened the door to questions in genetics that couldn’t be asked just a few years ago,” Petes said. “As a result, we are on the cusp of discoveries that promise to establish a whole new set of scientific principles. It is my goal for Duke to play a central role in that discovery process.”

Petes received his undergraduate education at Brown University and his Ph.D. in genetics at the University of Washington in Seattle. He then went on to postdoctoral fellowships at the National Institute for Medical Research in London and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

From 1977 to 1988, Petes served as a professor of microbiology at the University of Chicago. He began his current position at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1988. He served as president of the Genetics Society of America in 2002, and has been a member of the National Academy of Sciences since 1999.