Eric Francis Wieschaus is an American development biologist who was one of the joint winners of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Today, he is best known for his work on embryogenesis in the Drosophila, commonly known as fruit fly. Although he earned his doctoral degree from the University of Yale the later part of the work was done at the University of Basel, Switzerland. It was here in Basel that he first met Christiane (Janni) Nüsslein-Volhard and the two scientists quickly struck up a close friendship. Later both of them got employment at European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), Heidelberg, Germany. It was at EMBL that they set out on an ambitious project and finally identified 139 genes, which were essential for transforming a newly fertilized Drosophila egg into an embryo. The work earned them the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine almost one and half decades later. By that time, Wieschaus had returned to the U.S.A. and joined the University of Princeton as Assistant Professor. He climbed the ladder quickly to become a full professor within six years. Professor Wieschaus is very active still now and spends a lot of time at his laboratory working with his student on embryogenesis.
Childhood & Early Years
Erik Francis Wieschaus was born on June 8, 1947, in South Bend, Indiana. When he was six years old, his family moved to Birmingham, Alabama, which still retained its small town characteristics. Here, he spent a lot of time exploring the woods near his home with his siblings, collecting frogs, crayfish and turtles.
At the age of fourteen, Erik was admitted to John Carroll Catholic High School. Although he was good in science subjects, becoming a scientist was never his goal. Instead he wanted to become an artist and spent a lot of time painting. He was also fond of reading books and playing the piano.
His interest in science began to develop when he attended a program funded by the National Science Foundation at Lawrence, Kansas. It was meant to encourage high school kids to become scientists. Here he dissected different kinds of animals, starting from fish to fetal pigs.
In the following summer, he had the good fortune of attending the neurobiology laboratory of Nancy and Dennis Dahl. This time he got the opportunity to experiment with a large tortoise, stripping of its outer sheathe, removing its vagus nerve and recording the electrical depolarization when they were stimulated.
In 1965, Erik graduated from school and entered University of Notre Dame, near South Bend. By this time he had decided to major in biology. As he needed money, he found a job in the Drosophila laboratory of Professor Harvey Bender, where his task was to prepare fly food.
At the same time, he began taking embryology courses from Kenyon Tweedel, which he found immensely interesting. He wanted to know what made the cells in a developing embryo different from each other or why cells in a specific region behaved the way they did.
In 1969, he earned his B.S. degree from the University of Notre Dame and then entered the University of Yale for his graduation work. Here he started working under Donald Poulson on embryology of Drosophila.
Later in the second year, he moved to Walter Gehring's laboratory in the University of Yale to learn ‘in vivo’ techniques for culturing embryos. When in 1972, Gehring joined University of Basel, Switzerland Erick moved with him and continued his doctoral work from there.
Finally in 1974, he received his PhD from the University of Yale. His thesis project was on the origin of imaginal disc cells in the blastoderm.
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In 1975, Eric Francis Wieschaus joined Zoologisches Institut der Universität Zürich, Switzerland as a postdoctoral Fellow under Dr Rolf Nöthiger. Here he remained till 1978 and focused mainly on the development of sexually dimorphic structures.
Meanwhile in 1976, he also worked in the laboratory of Mme Gans at Laboratoire de Genetique Moleculaire at Gif-sur-Yvette, France, on a short-term fellowship. The following year, for a brief period, he was also a visiting researcher at Laboratory of Peter Bryant, Center of Pathobiology at the University of California.
In 1978, Wieschaus was appointed a Group Leader at European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), Heidelberg, Germany. It was his first independent job. Moreover, it gave him the opportunity to pursue his work on embryology freely. There was no teaching obligation and grants were easy to get.
Here he shared the laboratory with Christiane (Janni) Nüsslein-Volhard, whom he had met while working at Basel and with whom he had developed a close friendship. Although both were Group Leaders and had their individual projects they spent a lot of time together, working on the joint mutagenesis experiment.
In 1980, working with around 40000 families of Drosophila, they succeeded in identifying 139 genes that were essential for transforming a Drosophila egg into an embryo. Moreover, they also classified these genes. Almost fifteen years later, they received the Nobel Prize for this work.
In 1981, Wieschaus returned to the U.S.A and joined the University of Princeton as Assistant Professor of Biology, remaining with the institute for around two decades. Later, he was promoted to the post of an Associate Professor in 1983 and was made a full Professor in 1987.
Later, he became a Squibb Professor of Molecular Biology at Princeton University and an adjunct professor of biochemistry at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey–Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
In Princeton, he continued his work on large scale mutagenesis screens for maternal effect mutants, segmentation genes and also the genes that affect the segmental identity. More importantly, working with his students at Princeton, he also discovered other genes that control cell fate in Drosophila.
Later his work focused on defining the relationship between cell fate genes and the step-by-step changes in cell shape. Since the genes discovered by him are present in higher animals, including humans, one day his work may suggest tactic that would offset developmental abnormalities in humans.
Eric Francis Wieschaus is best remembered for his work on identification of 139 genes essential for transforming a newly fertilized Drosophila egg into an embryo. It was a huge task and no other researchers had tried to do that before.
In 1978, he and Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard set upon a trial and error method, with the aim of identifying which of Drosophila’s 20,000 genes were absolutely essential for its early development. First they randomly created mutations in the Drosophilae that ‘knocked out’ the function of individual genes.
Subsequently they bred 40,000 drosophila families that have defective genes. On examining them they finally found 5000 genes that were important for the embryonic developments, among which 139 genes proved to be essential. Drosophilae born without these 139 genes lacked in vital body parts like muscles, eyes, heads etc. In 1980, they published the result in the scientific journal ‘Nature’.
Awards & Achievements
In 1995, Eric Francis Wieschaus and Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for their discoveries concerning the genetic control of early embryonic development". They shared the prize with Edward B. Lewis of California Institute of Technology, who independently worked on the same topic.
Personal Life & Legacy
While Wieschaus was a postdoctoral fellow at Zurich he met his future wife, Gertrud Schüpbach; (published name Trudi Schüpbach), a Swiss-American molecular biologist. They got married in 1983 at Princeton. The couple has three daughters; Ingrid, Eleanor and Laura.
Trudi Schüpbach is now a Professor of Molecular Biology at Princeton University and works mainly on molecular and genetic mechanisms in Drosophila oogenesis. On occasions, she has also collaborated with her husband.
Wieschaus has always been pacifist. In his years at the University of Notre Dame, he actively agitated against the war in Vietnam. He not only collected petitions, but also joined in protest demonstrations. He even applied for conscientious objector status to avoid going to Vietnam
To support himself at the University of Notre Dame, Wieschaus took up a job, which involved preparing food for the drosophilae. By the time he joined Yale University he was fed up of the fruit fly and did not want to come across another fly in his life. Yet, when Donald Poulson, a Drosophila geneticist, set up a place for him in his laboratory at the University of Yale, Wieschaus did not have courage to tell him so. Instead he started working on embryology of Drosophila, and the rest is history.