Michael Ashburner on Competition vs. Cooperation in Science
  Michael Ashburner     Biography    
Recorded: 03 Jul 2003

One very early one we had discovered, I can’t remember when, I’m very bad with dates, it must have been the early ‘80s. We discovered the alcohol dehydrogenase gene had two promoters and that was a very unusual dynamic. In fact, I think it was only the second case. There was a case in mouse from Lausanne of a gene with two promoters. At least that was a hypothesis. Evidence wasn’t—I mean we still worked on experiments—the evidence wasn’t absolutely complete—[to] 1983 I date it. But we had convinced ourselves that we were at least a month of getting it updated to publish. I came to the Drosophila conference in the States, which is in Storrs. I know it was in 1983 because it was at Storrs that Gerry Rubin and Allan Spradling announced that they had achieved a transformation of Drosophila. It was a very historic occasion. I met at Storrs, Cheeptip [Benyajati] is now in Rochester, I think. Our sciences moved apart. I was talking and Cheeptip: it was clear that she had also good evidence for two promoters by doing a lot of different experiments. I remember very well sitting down on the floor in a corridor with Cheeptip and we both had notebooks out. It was very clear that if we put our experiments together we could publish next week, because basically she’d come at it from the right side and I had come at it from the left side and [we] had met. And that’s how we did it. I think that one of my postdocs was actually quite pissed off about that because he thought we should actually just compete and get it out. But we actually published a joint paper, which I think is good. Other times people just can’t get it together.

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