Edward B. Lewis Biography (1918-)

developmental geneticist

Edward B. Lewis, sometimes called the father of developmental genetics, has dedicated a lifetime of research to the study of gene clusters responsible forearly embryonic development. His tenacity resulted in important discoveriesand led to formal recognition of his work. In 1995, Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his groundbreaking genetic research. He shared the prize with two other scientists, Eric Wieschaus of Princeton University and Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard of the Max PlanckInstitute for Developmental Biology in Germany. Working independently of hisco-recipients, Lewis studied "master control" gene clusters in fruit flies and subsequently discovered their corresponding human counterparts. Such a discovery promises to explain and eventually prevent congenital human malformations (about 40% of all human birth defects). It may also lead to improved in-vitro fertilization techniques, as well as a better understanding of substancesharmful to early pregnancy.

Edward B. Lewis was born May 20, 1918, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to Edward B. Lewis and Laura (Histed) Lewis. His early years were spent trying to satiate his thirst for scientific knowledge in an environment that did not lenditself to learning. Books were not commonplace at home and as he remembered,"the high school library had nothing at all on genetics." Lewis found solacein playing the flute. He practiced daily, and during high school played withthe local symphony orchestra. His musical abilities led to a scholarship atBucknell University; however, Lewis transferred to the University of Minnesota, which offered course work in genetics. In 1939, Lewis received a B.A. degree in biostatistics from the University of Minnesota. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in genetics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 1942 and a M.S. in meteorology the following year. After serving as a weatherman inthe Army during World War II, Lewis returned to Caltech to reestablish his affiliation with his alma mater.

Since the 1940s, Lewis has been a pioneer in the field of developmental genetics. The direction of his research was already set as a sophomore in high school: with the encouragement of a biology teacher, Lewis and a friend, EdwardNovitski, purchased 100 fruit flies from Purdue University for one dollar. Lewis and Novitski let the flies breed, checking each day for any unusual new hatchlings. Their eagerness to learn something from a living specimen sparkedcareers in biology for both boys. In Lewis it created a lifelong obsession with the genetic workings of the fruit fly. In fact, it was a mutated fruit flydiscovered by Novitski that led to Lewis's first postulations about the genetic factors causing mutations in the flies. Like Lewis, Novitski spent his professional life immersed in genetics research. Now retired, he resides in Eugene, Oregon.

Continuing his work with fruit fly specimens, Lewis was able to collect, crossbreed, and ultimately study an enormous amount of mutant flies. By mutatingfly embryos so that the flies developed extra pairs of wings, Lewis was ableto discern that it was not only the wings that were duplicated but the wholebody segment that contained the wings. Because the fruit fly has only eight chromosomes (humans have 23 sets), Lewis was able to pinpoint the gene sequence responsible for the development and order of each fly-body segment. His findings were published in a 1978 Nature paper entitled "A Gene Complex Controlling Segmentation in Drosophila." Since then, geneticists have discovered that the gene sequences are almost identical for all other animal speciesas well.

Lewis has often received recognition for his contributions to developmental genetics. In 1981, he was honored with a Ph.D. from the University of Umeå in Sweden. He received the Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal from the Genetics Society of America in 1983. He was awarded the Canadian Gairdner Foundation International Award in 1987 and Israel's Wolf Prize in Medicine in 1989. In 1990,he received three separate awards: the Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award in basic medical research, the National Medal of Science, and an honorary membership in the Genetical Society in Great Britain. Lewis won the prestigious Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award in 1991, the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize in 1992, and was given an honorary Doctor of Science degree from the University ofMinnesota in 1993.

Recent Updates

July 21, 2004: Lewis died on July 21, 2004, in Pasadena, California, of cancer. He was 86. Source: Los Angeles Times, www.latimes.com, July 23, 2004; New York Times, July 26, 2004, p. A14.

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