Eric Francis Wieschaus is an American development biologist who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1995 with two other co-winners. He is best recognized today for his research on embryogenesis in the Drosophila, or fruit fly. Although he received his doctorate from Yale University, he completed the majority of his research at the University of Basel in Switzerland. He initially met Christiane (Janni) Nüsslein-Volhard in Basel, and the two scientists rapidly developed a close connection. They later found work at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany. They embarked on an extensive effort at EMBL, eventually identifying 139 genes required for the transformation of a newly fertilized Drosophila egg into an embryo. They were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work almost a half-century later. By that time, Wieschaus had returned to the United States and accepted a position as an Assistant Professor at Princeton University. He rose fast through the ranks, becoming a full professor in just six years. Professor Wieschaus is still quite active and spends a lot of time in his laboratory researching on embryogenesis with his students.
Childhood and Adolescence
Erik Francis Wieschaus was born in South Bend, Indiana, on June 8, 1947. His family relocated to Birmingham, Alabama, when he was six years old, and it preserved its small-town charm. He spent a lot of time with his brothers in the woods around his house, gathering frogs, crayfish, and turtles.
Erik was accepted to John Carroll Catholic High School when he was fourteen years old. Despite his aptitude in science courses, he had no intention of becoming a scientist. Instead, he aspired to be an artist and spent a significant amount of time painting. He enjoyed reading and playing the piano as well.
When he was in Lawrence, Kansas, for a National Science Foundation-funded program, his interest in science grew. It was intended to inspire high school students to pursue careers in science. He dissected a variety of species here, ranging from fish to fetal pigs.
The next summer, he had the excellent pleasure of working at Nancy and Dennis Dahl’s neuroscience lab. He had the chance to experiment with a huge tortoise this time, removing its outer sheath, detaching its vagus nerve, and recording the electrical depolarization when they were activated.
Erik finished from high school in 1965 and enrolled at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. He had already decided to major in biology at this point. He obtained work in Professor Harvey Bender’s Drosophila laboratory, where he was responsible for preparing fly food, because he needed money.
Simultaneously, he began attending embryology classes with Kenyon Tweedel, which he found fascinating. He was curious on what differentiated cells in a developing embryo from one another, as well as why cells in a particular region behaved the way they did.
He graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a B.S. in 1969 and then went on to Yale for his graduate studies. Here, he began working on Drosophila embryology under Donald Poulson.
He proceeded to Walter Gehring’s laboratory at Yale University later in the second year to acquire ‘in vivo’ procedures for cultivating embryos. When Gehring joined the University of Basel in Switzerland in 1972, Erick followed him and finished his doctoral studies there.
Finally, in 1974, he obtained his doctorate from Yale University. The origin of imaginal disc cells in the blastoderm was his thesis topic.
A Career of Eric F. Wieschaus
In 1975, Eric Francis Wieschaus began working as a postdoctoral fellow at the Zoologisches Institut der Universität Zürich, Switzerland, under Dr. Rolf Nöthiger. He stayed here until 1978, specializing in the development of sexually dimorphic structures.
Meanwhile, on a short-term fellowship in 1976, he worked in Mme Gans’ laboratory at the Laboratoire de Genetique Moleculaire in Gif-sur-Yvette, France. He was also a visiting researcher at the University of California’s Laboratory of Peter Bryant, Center of Pathobiology, for a brief term the following year.
Wieschaus became a Group Leader at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1978. It was his first job on his own. Furthermore, it allowed him to freely conduct his embryology research. There was no requirement to educate, and funding were simple to come by.
Christiane (Janni) Nüsslein-Volhard, whom he had met while working at Basel and with whom he had built a strong bond, shared the laboratory with him. Despite the fact that they were both Group Leaders with their own projects, they spent a lot of time together on the collaborative mutagenesis experiment.
They succeeded in finding 139 genes that were required for developing a Drosophila egg into an embryo in 1980, after working with roughly 40000 Drosophila families. Furthermore, they categorised these genes. They were awarded the Nobel Prize for this work over fifteen years later.
Wieschaus came to the United States in 1981 to work as an Assistant Professor of Biology at the University of Princeton, where he stayed for nearly two decades. In 1983, he was appointed to Associate Professor, and in 1987, he was elevated to full Professor.
He then became a Squibb Professor of Molecular Biology at Princeton University and an adjunct professor of biochemistry at the Robert
Wood Johnson Medical School at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.
He kept working on large-scale mutagenesis screens for maternal impact mutants, segmentation genes, and genes that affect segmental identity in Princeton. More crucially, he found other genes that affect cell fate in Drosophila while working with his Princeton students.
Later research focused on establishing a link between cell destiny genes and the progression of cell shape alterations. Because the genes he discovered are found in higher species, including humans, his research may one day lead to a strategy to correct developmental problems in people.
Major Projects of Eric F. Wieschaus
Eric Francis Wieschaus is well known for discovering 139 genes required for the transformation of a newly fertilized Drosophila egg into an embryo. It was a massive undertaking, and no other researchers had attempted it before.
In 1978, he and Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard embarked on a trial-and-error approach to determine which of Drosophila’s 20,000 genes were absolutely necessary for the insect’s early growth. They started by creating mutations in Drosophilae that ‘knocked out’ the function of individual genes at random.
They generated 40,000 drosophila families with faulty genes as a result. They discovered 5000 genes critical for embryonic development after studying them, with 139 genes proving to be essential. Drosophilae lacking these 139 genes lacked key body parts such as muscles, eyes, heads, and so on. They reported their findings in the scientific journal ‘Nature’ in 1980.
Achievements & Awards
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Eric Francis Wieschaus and Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard in 1995 “for their findings concerning the genetic control of early embryonic development.” They were awarded the prize alongside Edward B. Lewis of California Institute of Technology, who worked on the same problem independently.
Personal History and Legacy
Wieschaus met his future wife, Gertrud Schüpbach (published name Trudi Schüpbach), a Swiss-American molecular biologist, while a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Zurich. In 1983, they married at Princeton. Ingrid, Eleanor, and Laura are the couple’s three daughters.
Trudi Schüpbach is now a Professor of Molecular Biology at Princeton University, where she focuses on Drosophila oogenesis molecular and genetic pathways. She has also cooperated with her husband on occasion.
Wieschaus has always advocated for peace. During his time at the University of Notre Dame, he was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War. He didn’t just collect petitions; he also took part in protests. To avoid going to Vietnam, he even applied for conscientious objector status.
Estimated Net Worth
Estimated net worth of Eric F. Wieschaus is unknown.
Wieschaus took a job making food for drosophilae at the University of Notre Dame to help support himself. He was sick of the fruit fly by the time he enrolled at Yale University, and he didn’t want to see another one in his life. Yet, when Donald Poulson, a Drosophila geneticist at Yale University, offered him a spot in his lab, Wieschaus lacked the nerve to tell him so. Instead, he began studying Drosophila embryology, and the rest is history.