Faculty + Staff

Dr. Edward De Robertis on exploring our ancient genetic toolbox

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Edward De Robertis in his lab
Ana De Robertis

When Dr. Edward De Robertis gives UCLA’s 121st Faculty Research Lecture on Thursday, Oct. 13, he could boast about his pioneering role in the field of evolutionary development or his accomplishments in exploring the genetic roots of complex developmental processes that transform animal embryos into perfectly formed creatures.

De Robertis, the Norman Sprague Professor of Biological Chemistry at the School of Medicine, certainly could boast. But humility seems more the style of a man who says:  “I never consciously decided to study medicine and biology. I simply followed the path expected of me.”

Raised in Montevideo, Uruguay, by Argentinian parents exiled from their homeland by General Juan Perón, De Robertis credited “the example of my father, who was a famous neurobiologist and doctor” for his early interest in biology. In high school, De Robertis spent his spare time in the biology laboratory — his teacher loaned him a key — where he did his best to reproduce experiments he had read about in Scientific American.

De Robertis went on to earn a medical degree at the University of Uruguay in 1971. Soon after graduation, he married his childhood sweetheart, Ana — now his administrative assistant at UCLA — and the couple moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where De Robertis earned a Ph.D. in chemistry.

Their next stop was Cambridge, England, where he did postdoctoral work in molecular biology. And then it was on to Switzerland, where he became a professor of cell biology at the University of Basel. In 1985, he joined UCLA as the Norman Sprague Professor of Biological Chemistry at the School of Medicine. Since then, he has received numerous awards and honors, including being named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator in 1994, and election to the National Academy of Sciences in 2013.

His latest honor, being named by the UCLA Academic Senate to give the Faculty Research Lecture, recognizes De Robertis as one of the university’s most distinguished scholars. Faculty honorees are nominated by their peers and selected by the Senate's Committee on Faculty Research Lectureship, which is comprised of seven previous honorees.

For his lecture on Thursday, “Evolution and Development from Simple Animals to Humans via Ancestral Gene Networks,” De Robertis plans to focus on the impact that molecular biology has had in understanding vertebrate development on the underlying level of DNA, RNA, proteins and other molecules.

“Molecular biology allowed the discovery of genes that control the development of vertebrate embryos,” said De Robertis.

The scientist played a key — and rather serendipitous — role in this momentous discovery. While at the University of Basel in the 1980s, he and colleague Walter Gehring, a noted geneticist, isolated what would later be determined to be the first Hox gene — genes that determine the basic structure of animals — from a frog.

The discovery of the Hox gene came about as a result of “testing a crazy idea that proved to be wrong,” De Robertis recalled. At the time, scientists had already discovered homeotic genes in fruit flies, which are invertebrates and members of genus Drosophila. Homeotic genes were found to control the complex head-to-tail development of what would become a fully formed fruit fly. But similar genes responsible for the same developmental process in vertebrates had yet to be isolated — until De Robertis and Gehring came up with the idea of using fruit fly DNA probes to isolate genes from a frog — a vertebrate and member of the genus Xenopus.

The isolation of the Hox gene opened the door to a flurry of research by other groups and led to an astounding new understanding about animal development. “Before this important discovery,” De Robertis said, “it was thought that development would be entirely different between Drosophila (fruit flies) — an invertebrate — and the vertebrate Xenopus. The surprise was that the evolution of an infinite variety of body forms arose through the use of ancient gene networks already present in very primitive animal ancestors.”

Animal development, scientists found, is directed by a genetic toolkit shared by all animals — from fruit flies to frogs to human beings — rather than different animals having different genetic toolkits. With this new paradigm came the fusion of molecular, developmental and evolutionary biology into the field of evolutionary development (Evo-Devo) and explorations into the last common ancestor of all animals: urbilateria, which existed at least 560 million years ago.

“Evo-Devo seeks to understand how so many beautiful animal forms were generated in evolution through the use of the original genetic toolkit of urbilateria,” De Robertis said. In recent years, scientists have been hard at work reconstructing the ancient genetic toolkit of urbilateria. To learn where this research stands today, attend De Robertis’ lecture Thursday at 3 p.m. in Schoenberg auditorium.

The lecture will be immediately followed by a reception. No reservation is needed for the lecture, but the reception requires an RSVP: Email specialevents@ucla.edu. For questions, call 310-794-6241.

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