Eric F. Wieschaus Biography (1947-)


Wieschaus was born in South Bend, Indiana, in 1947 but grew up in Alabama. Hereceived his bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Notre Damein 1969 and his doctorate from Yale in 1974. His doctoral dissertation involved using genetic methods to label the progeny (offspring) of single cells infly embryos. He showed that even at the earliest cellular stages, cells werealready determined to form specific regions of the body called segments.

Wieschaus began his Nobel-winning work in the latter part of the 1970s. The Alabama native spent three years with Christiane Nüsslein-Volhardin the European Molecular Biology Lab at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, tackling the question of why individual cells in a fertilized egg developinto various specific tissues. They elected to study Drosophila , or fruit flies, because of their extremely fast embryonic development. New generations of fruit flies can be bred in a week. In addition, fruit flies have only one set of genes controlling development compared to the four sets humans possess. This means that testing each fruit fly gene individually takes one-fourth the time it would involve to test human genes.

To begin their experiment, Nüsslein-Volhard and Wieschaus damaged male fruit fly deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) by applying ultraviolet light to the genes or by feeding the flies sugar water laced with chemicals. Then the team "knocked out" one gene from the fly, breeding generations of fruit flies without that particular piece of code. In this way, Nüsslein-Volhard and Wieschaus were able to isolate all the genes crucial to the early stages of embryonic development. When the flies were bred, the females produced dead embryos.These lifeless embryos resulted from only 150 different mutations of the 40,000 mutations applied. These 150 genes proved to be essential to the proper development of the fly embryo because, when damaged, the genes caused extraordinary deformities that killed the embryo. By viewing the fly embryos with a two-person microscope, Wieschaus and Nüsslein-Volhard were able to simultaneously view and classify a large quantity of malformations caused by gene mutations. Next, they identified 15 different genes, that, when mutated, eliminate specific body segments in the fly embryos. Wieschaus also established that systematic categorizing of genes that control the various stages of development could be accomplished.

Their first research results reported that the number of genes controlling early development was not only limited, but could also be classified into specific functional groups. They also identified genes that cause severe congenital defects in flies. After additional experimentation, the principles involvedwith the fruit fly genes were found to apply to higher animals and humans. This led to the realization that many similar genes control human development,and this finding could have a tremendous impact on the medical world. The applications of their research extend to in vitro fertilization, identifying congenital birth defects, and increased knowledge of substances that canendanger early stages of pregnancy.

It wasn't until 1995, however, that he won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, along with Edward B. Lewis and Christaine Nüsslein-Volhard, forhis work on identifying key genes that make a fertilized fruit fly egg develop into a segmented embryo. His research could help improve knowledge of howgenes control embryonic development in higher organisms, including identifying genes that cause human birth defects.

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