Michael Ashburner on 1985 CSHL Symposium and Sequencing ADH
  Michael Ashburner     Biography    
Recorded: 03 Jul 2003

I went to Caltech to give a seminar. Tom Maniatis was then in Caltech and he had a graduate student, David Goldberg, who was working trying to clone the white [gene] in Drosophila. I taught him what I was doing with ADH. We cloned it already, but we hadn’t sequenced it, and they switched projects and I think sequenced it in about two weeks and beat us to it. David Goldberg did.

Now there’s an interesting symposium-related joke attached to this. In the 1985 Symposium, I think the 50th symposium, which was one on development [Molecular Biology of Development]. One of the big honchos here was a man called Walter Gehring who is a Swiss, who has been in Basel for very many years, though I think he comes from Zurich, but he lived in Basel for a long time. He was trained by Ernst Hadorn who was one of the great molecular biologists of the late ‘40s and ‘50s and early ‘60s, a very, very Swiss, Swiss. A very distinguished man. Walter was his student and Walter became a postdoc with Alan Garen in Yale. And [they] began actually the first—really some of the first molecular biology in Drosophila trying to isolate DNA binding proteins. He went back to the new institute, the BS Centrom and built a very good school there. One of the things that were done in his lab by his postdocs particularly by Bill McGinnis and Mike Levine and others was to clone the first homeodomain genes and identify the homeodomain. Now there was a big row because about the same time that was also done by Matt Scott who was working in Tom Kaufmann’s lab in Indiana in Bloomington. And there was a big kind of priority row about who did what. If you read Peter Lawrence’s Making of a Fly, there’s a kind of historical appendix to it in which Peter interviewed all of the people involved. Walter hated that because it didn’t give Walter due credit. Walter, two or three years ago actually published a book from his point of view of the true history of the discovery of the homeodomain.

Walter is actually a rather gentle man and I like him very much. But he does have a characteristic in public of claiming credit for things to himself. It’s not because he’s arrogant, it’s like a nervous tic in some ways. It’s very peculiar. He was talking here at the Symposium. He was talking about the early discovery of homeodomain and how this was first seen as a band on the Southern blot [analyses] and how he immediately realized its global importance, and how he then told the postdocs what to do. Many of Walter’s ex-postdocs were at this meeting and this was the days when the meeting was down in Bush [Auditorium]. Near the side room of Bush—so during Walter’s talk all his postdocs, they couldn’t bear to be in the same room so they’re all in the side room. I was with them and watching on the TV and they just erupted when they heard this. He said “ I told Rich Garver what to do.” I mean, you should give credit to your postdocs, any way.

I spoke the next day, I’ve known Walter for a very long time. We’re friends and we go bird watching together. I like him and he’s a good scientist. But really his behavior was too much. Some people told him about it. David Hogness actually told him he shouldn’t do this. So I was thinking about what to do. I was talking about ADH and I said that ADH had been sequenced by David Goldberg. I said David Goldberg’s brother, Michael Goldberg, who is now in Cornell who is a postdoc with Walter Gehring—I couldn’t speak for five minutes. And Jim came in—I remember that somebody told me later [that] Jim came in [and] there was huge laughter and clapping and Jim said, “well, what’s going on.” Somebody tried to explain to Jim what it was and Jim didn’t really understand.

Michael Ashburner, a leader in Drosophila Genetics and bioinformatics, received his B.A. (1964), M.A. (1968), Ph.D. (1968) and Sc.D. (1978) from the University of Cambridge, where he is currently professor of Biology in the Department of Genetics and a Professional Fellow of Churchill College.

He has been the joint head of European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI), of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and was co-founder of Flybase, the primary online database for Drosophila genetics and molecular biology, the Gene Ontology Consortium, an effort to coordinate biological databases through a defined taxonomy of gene function, and the Crete Meetings, a bi-annual event focusing on the developmental and molecular biology of Drosophila melanogaster.

Among many honors, he is the recipient of the G.J. Mendel Medal (Czech Republic 1998) and the George W. Beadle Medal (Genetics Society of America 1999).

Michael Ashburner