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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Nobel Laureate: Edward Lewis


The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1995.
"for their discoveries concerning the genetic control of early embryonic development"

Edward B. Lewis (1918 - 2004) won the Noble Prize for his studies on the genetics of Drosophila melanogaster, especially the homeotic mutants in the bithorax complex. These are the mutations that cause transformation of the 3nd thoracic segment into the 2nd, giving rise to a fly with four wings instead of two.

The significance of this work can't be underestimated. It led to our modern understanding of development and evolution. Thanks to Lewis, we now know that small changes in the regulation of gene expression can have large effects on phenotype. It means that the number of mutations required to make the difference between mice and humans, for example, may be far less that what people imagined 50 years ago.

Edward Lewis shared the prize with Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard and Eric Wieschaus. Here's what the press release said about Lewis.

Nobel Laureates
The fly with the extra pair of wings

Already at the beginning of this century geneticists had noted occasional malformations in Drosophila. In one type of mutation the organ that controls balance (the halteres), was transformed into an extra pair of wings (Fig. 2). In this type of bizarre disturbance of the body plan, cells in one region behave as though they were located in another. The Greek word homeosis was used to describe this type of malformations and the mutations were referred to as homeotic mutations.
Figure 2.

Fig. 2. Comparison of a normal and a four-winged fruit fly. The third thoractic segment has developed as a duplicate of the second due to a defectic homeotic gene. In the normal fly only the second segment develops wings.

The fly with the extra pair of wings interested Edward B. Lewis at the California Institute of Technology in Los Angeles. He had, since the beginning of the forties, been trying to analyze the genetic basis for homeotic transformations. Lewis found that the extra pair of wings was due to a duplication of an entire body segment. The mutated genes responsible for this phenomenon were found to be members of a gene family ( bithorax-complex) that controls segmentation along the anterior-posterior body axis (Fig. 3). Genes at the beginning of the complex controlled anterior body segments while genes further down the genetic map controlled more posterior body segments (the colinearity principle). Furthermore, he found that the regions controlled by the individual genes overlapped, and that several genes interacted in a complex manner to specify the development of individual body segments. The fly with the four wings was due to inactivity of the first gene of the bithorax complex in a segment that normally would have produced the halteres, the balancing organ of the fly (Fig 3). This caused other homeotic genes to respecify this particular segment into one that forms wings.

Edward Lewis worked on these problems for decades and was far ahead of his time. In 1978 he summarized his results in a review article and formulated theories about how homeotic genes interact, how the gene order corresponded to the segment order along the body axis, and how the individual genes were expressed. His pioneering work on homeotic genes induced other scientists to examine families of analogous genes in higher organisms. In mammalians, the gene clusters first found in Drosophila have been duplicated into four complexes known as the HOX genes. Human genes in these complexes are sufficiently similar to their Drosophila analogues they can restore some of the normal functions of mutant Drosophila genes.

[The book is a tribute to Edward Lewis, edited by my colleague Howard D. Lipshitz.]

[Image Credit: California Institute of Technology]

1 comment :

  1. There's a great video interview with Ed Lewis available through this site:

    They have some clips that can be viewed for free. Very interesting stuff, in the interview he talks about Sturtevant's work after World War II on the dangers of radiation, and how the science journals and even the NY Times refused to publish any of it under threat from the government.