Turk Aziz Sancar, Swede Tomas Lindahl and American Paul Modrich win prize for showing how cells repair damaged DNA.
Russian billionaire Yuri Milner has handed out seven Breakthrough Prizes, the award for scientific accomplishment he created three years ago alongside other technology giants like Facebook and Google.
The prizes awarded in a glittering ceremony in California on Sunday totalled $21.9m this year.
Among those honoured were Edward Boyden of MIT and Karl Deisseroth of Stanford University for developing a procedure called optogenetics – a means of turning neurons on and off using light.
Some 1,370 physicists were honoured as part of a single $3m prize for their work confirming the theory of neutrino oscillation, a phenomenon in quantum mechanics. Seven team leaders will split two-thirds of the prize. That leaves $1m to split among the others, or around $700 for each physicist.
“I would love to give $3m to each one, but we’re not there yet,” Milner said in an interview on Friday.
Increasingly, he added, breakthroughs are made through vast consortia rather than a handful of scientists working in relative isolation, raising the chances of such shared prizes in future.
A prize in mathematics went to a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, for work in low-dimensional topology and geometric group theory.
Eight scientists early in their mathematics and physics careers won awards of $100,000.
Milner has set his sights on giving the sciences the same cultural resonance as sports or entertainment, but on Friday, he said it was too early to see if his work was having any effect.
He pointed to the ceremony’s broadcast on a major US network, Fox, for the first time as a sign things were moving in the right direction.
A one-time physics doctoral student in Moscow who dropped out to move to the United States in 1990, Milner has backed some of the world’s biggest technology companies, including Facebook.
Earlier this year, Milner said he would spend $100m looking for intelligent life in space by searching for radio and light signals.