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Edward M. De Robertis

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Edward M. De Robertis

In His Own Words

Those Magic Moments

In 1984, we isolated the first vertebrate homeobox gene in collaboration with Walter Gehring. In 1991, we isolated the first gene involved in the Spemann organizer phenomenon that explains the induction of embryonic tissue types. Our work on Chordin, a protein secreted by the Spemann organizer, has provided a paradigm for extracellular cell signaling by morphogen gradients.

Challenges to Come

The evolution of development (Evo-Devo). The genes that pattern embryos have been conserved in all bilateral animals. Reconstructing the ancestral genetic tool-kit from which the enormous diversity of animal shapes was assembled should one day be possible through advances in DNA sequencing.


I had two French students in my laboratory jointly with Ph.D. advisors at UPMC. Thank you so much. In 1974, Prof. L. Gallien gave me some of his Pleurodeles salamanders that we used in pioneering nuclear reprogramming studies with John Gurdon. I also enjoyed two wonderful sabbaticals at the Institut d’Embryologie with Nicole Le Douarin.

And like so many others, I love Paris.

For the Up & Coming

When you start a PhD or postdoc training all options are open to you. Apply to the best laboratory possible. Study the literature and think about which papers you would have liked to have written yourself before deciding where to go. A career in science offers a wonderful life as curiosity keeps growing in you.


professor Edward M. De Robertis

Presented by Catherine Jessus, Director of the Biological Sciences Institute,CNRS


It is a great honor and a great pleasure, in this beautiful and prestigious setting, to present a leader in developmental biology, Professor Edward De Robertis. He is one of the world leaders in this field, and his work has helped to establish concepts as well as to identify the precise molecular mechanisms at work during embryogenesis. The work of Edward De Robertis has illuminated this field, providing new paradigms of cellular communications within the embryo. His research has highlighted the existence of a set of genes forming a basic toolbox for the development, which is used, in adapted forms, by all animals.


The birthplace of Edward De Robertis could be his first encouragement toward a scientific vocation. Indeed, Edward De Robertis was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts and his father worked as a postdoc at the prestigious MIT. However, he grew up in Uruguay. This is where his passion for Biological Sciences developed. His favorite book, written in 1926 by Paul de Kruif, is entitled Microbe Hunters, and recounts the discoveries of great microbiologists such as Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch. Today, De Robertis gives this introductory book to every post-doc as a farewell gift. When De Robertis was a teenager, he discovered life on a small scale through the microscope of his father, a renowned biologist and co-discoverer of synaptic vesicles. At 13 years old, he started working in his first laboratory, on cricket chromosomes. He chose to study medicine, and even got the gold medal for best medical student of Uruguay in 1971. At 24, he was already a medical doctor and moved towards research. He did his PhD work on the effects of cyclic AMP in Escherichia coli at the Leloir Institute in Buenos Aires, Argentina.


A chance encounter then caused a major change in the De Robertis’s scientific life, when he met Sir John Gurdon, the famous developmental biologist, during a visit to the Leloir Institute. Three years later, in 1977, De Robertis decided to do a post-doctorate. That was when he learned that John Gurdon, impressed by the quality of their discussion at the Leloir Institute, was already prepared to welcome De Robertis to his lab at MRC, in Cambridge in the UK. This was the beginning of an outstanding career as a developmental biologist, and his introduction to embryology manipulations on the amphibian model, and more specifically the Xenopus, to which he will be attached for the rest of his life.


The issues he addressed were ambitious. Through the work of John Gurdon, we know that a differentiated cell nucleus transplanted in an egg cell is “reprogrammed”. The egg cell causes the nucleus to lose its differentiation program and restores all its original potential, it becomes a blank slate. Edward De Robertis spent three years with John Gurdon, dissecting the cellular and molecular basis of reprogramming. He then got a job as a junior member at the MRC and focused his research on transport control between nucleus and cytoplasm. The new concepts originating from this work inspired the whole merging stem cells field.


In the early ‘80s, De Robertis left Cambridge to become Professor of Cell Biology at the University of Basel, Switzerland. He decided to tackle a field where everything needed clarification: the identification of genes controlling the development of the embryo morphology. Walter Gehring’s lab had just discovered the homeobox genes in the Drosophila fruit fly. This was a fantastic discovery. At the time, we thought the mechanisms of fly development were entirely different from those of vertebrates. This concept was totally overturned when in 1984, Edward De Robertis clones the first homeobox gene of a vertebrate, homologous to Antennapedia in Xenopus. This opens the prospect of isolating key developmental genes in vertebrates by drawing on data from the Drosophila genetics. This is actually what happened, thanks to this pioneering work.


In 1985, Edward De Robertis was appointed Professor of Cell Biology at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he has continued his research. It addresses the understanding of the molecular mechanisms responsible for embryonic induction. He was the first in 1991 to identify genes that govern mechanisms of induction, in Xenopus. Edward De Robertis is the researcher to have revealed the molecular nature of Spemann organizer, a Grail sought for more than half a century. His work is beyond the simple genetic dissection of the mechanisms of induction. By studying the Chordin gene, Edward De Robertis indeed introduced a new paradigm for understanding the interactions between cells over long distances and the establishment of morphogenetic gradients in the embryo.


He recently addressed the issue of the cellular mechanisms involved in the transduction of the Wnt pathway. Few developmental biologists are sufficiently visionary to embrace a molecular arsenal of complementary approaches, transplants, genetics, biochemistry and cell biology and all scales of space and time of embryonic development. His work also feeds the rapidly expanding discipline know as “Evo- Devo”.


Edward De Robertis is one of the world’s most recognized developmental biologists. His scientific career means more than 200 publications in top journals, patents, the NIH Merit Award and G. Ross Harrison Award for Developmental Biology. He is a member of the Academy of Sciences of the United States, the Academy of Sciences of Latin America, the Academy of American Arts and Sciences, the EMBO and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. He chaired the International Society for Developmental Biology until 2006. Edward De Robertis has also always put the training of young doctoral and post-doctoral students and the transmission of knowledge and methods at the top of his priorities.


He is very attached to Europe and France, where, in addition to the exchange of salamanders with Professor Gallien, he has collaborated with Nicole Le Douarin’s laboratory. He has taught courses at the College de France and directed co -supervised thesis with our University. He is also a member of the French Honor Society Biology.


Pierre and Marie Curie University is proud to have this outstanding scientist among its Doctors Honiris Causa.