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International Prize for biology

Past Recipients
Acceptance Address, International Prize for Biology

Eric Harris Davidson, Nov.28 2011

  I am really very greatly honored by this event, and my first and overwhelming sentiment is to express my deep appreciation to His Imperial Highness the Crown Prince and the Prize Selection Committee. I wish to say at the outset that your decision to award this Prize for basic research sends a clear message.

  When this Prize was publically announced, the most important thing to me was the amazing response of many colleagues, some of whom I had not heard from in years, who wrote to me. I have seen, again and again, how the intellectual path that I have been following for what is now a whole scientific generation has influenced the minds and thoughts of so many valuable colleagues over so many years and this is very gratifying to me. Thus this Prize has been the occasion for my own realization of the role my work has had in the scientific world I have lived in for so long. So I thought that in these few moments I would try to recall how I entered on the journey that has led to where we are now.

  My scientific career, which led to the last decade of exploration of the gene regulatory networks to which the citation refers, extends back many decades. I want to say that from the beginning of that time, I have been thinking about what to me has been the greatest problem in science. This problem clarified and with the passage of time finally became possible to solve, but it has always been with me. What is that problem? It has always, for me, been to understand how animals come to being in each life cycle; how the genes, which reside in all of our cells, generate the dynamically changing process of embryonic development. And this is a very beautiful problem. It was recognized explicitly over a century ago but has never been completely solved until the present time when we are beginning to see the shape of the answer.

  I myself had an unusual path into this problem, which began even before I got to college. I began with research at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory with a then famous biologist trained in the 1920s and 1930’s. I became familiar with marine eggs and embryos, and these fascinated me to the point that I never forgot them, and never stopped working on them. My boss then and through years of work in his lab through college was L.V. Heilbrunn, whose personal reprint collection resides today in your Misaki Marine Station right across Tokyo Bay. Heilbrunn was a close friend of Katsuma Dan, at that time Misaki’s most famous resident scientist. Like Katsuma Dan, Heilbrunn knew everything that had ever been done in the early years of biology. And by the time I graduated from college I was deeply rooted in the insights of early 20th century“genome biology” as we would call it today. Then, in graduate school at Rockefeller University, my classical upbringing was hybridized with the most modern, quantitatively oriented, physical chemistry and molecular biology. But I never was distracted from what fascinated me right from the beginning. Where I started my independent career was in many ways where Theodor Boveri left off in the first decade of the 20th century, when he showed beyond any doubt that the genetic information in all the chromosomes is needed for an embryo to develop; and he did this on sea urchin embryos. So by the time I finished graduate school we knew that DNA was the genetic material, we knew it was in every cell and the problem clarified: what exactly is it in the DNA that makes embryos develop? For me this was primarily a problem of logic, and in the late 1960s Roy Britten, who had understood the structure of animal DNA, and I, let our imaginations take us forward into completely unknown territory. We thought about the shape of a gene regulatory system that could produce development and that could evolve. In its basic logical respects our 1969 model has materialized 40 years later in the gene regulatory networks of our own time. I feel very unusually fortunate to have been able to follow the same road for so long without ending in too many dead ends, as is so often the scientific experience. In 1971 Roy and I went to Caltech together and we decided to work on sea urchin embryos. For reasons that are still in a way mysterious, what was so illuminating a biological system for early 20th century biologists, in our time has turned into the most accessible experimental system for understanding developmental gene networks, and what they are, and how they work. The decades at Caltech saw the research of my laboratory on developmental gene function in sea urchin embryos extend in diverse directions, and curiously, much of what we learned then turned out to be of immediate usefulness many years later when it could be applied to gene regulatory networks.

  We operate in a scientific world of potent and various experimental approaches, a world of intellectual crossroads where knowledge and insights from many previously separate fields are requisite for progress, a world where creativity initially often evokes instant suspicion. No one works alone in this world. It is my great pleasure in accepting this award to acknowledge the crucial contributions of very wonderful people who have worked together with me on gene regulatory networks over the last decade and more, and who continue to share with me the unique experience of scientific exploration. I should like to close with a word to those who will illuminate the mechanisms that lie at the core of developmental systems far beyond where we are now, who will build into our scientific civilization ever more meaningful and beautiful understanding. I hope that you will do as I have tried always to do: go where biologically informed logic leads you personally, not where the latest fads or journal editors or government pronouncements would have you go. In closing I would like to say that despite all our machines and all our computations, discovery grows out of creativity, and this is what science shares with art.

  So let me thank you once again for this once in a life time occasion.