Recorded: 03 Jul 2003
When I was with Herschel in 1968 one of the things that I did was I studied the response of Drosophila to heat shock. This had actually been discovered by a man called ____________, an Italian in Naples in 1962. No one had followed it up or done anything systematically. It was just one of these weird curiosities. When I was at Caltech I started doing systematic studies on heat shock which I continued to finish and [I] wrote up when I was in Cambridge.
At that time the field, even in Drosophila, was a curiosity. It’s now very important because it opened up a whole field of chaperones. It’s now really central. In fact—I’ll come back to that a bit. Let me tell you this bit of the story first.
One of the great puzzles was—what we were looking at were puffs and protein chromosomes so that we could see that which were induced, which active genes from the hypothesis of Abboff-Bin in the ’56 symposium paper. So we had started with my assistant, Mike Lewis, who’s now at the LMB [the Laboratory of Molecular Biology] in Cambridge.
We had started experiments to try and discover the changes in protein synthesis which occurred after heat shock. We’d do this using a fairly crude technology which was that we were double-labeling proteins of larvae and you labeled the proteins with a Carbon 14 and the other was Tritium and then you mixed them together and separate the proteins on a tube gel, a chromide gel. Then after the end of electrophoresis you expel this gel from the glass holding tube normally by blowing down the tube. It’s a bit dangerous because chrinomide is very nasty and it was also radioactive. Then you’d cut the gel into millimeter slices with a razor blade. In fact, you had—either made or bought, I can’t remember now— an automatic arm which did this and cut the gel. Then you counted the tritium and C-14 ratio. That was actually really quite complicated because the tritium and C-14 channels overlap. You had two days of computation by hand to work out the real numbers until Mango Jim Pastel who was a graduate student with Fotos Kafartis sctually gave me a computer program to do it because that was the first computing I did. Jim Pastel was now called Jim Mostel because he married a woman called “Oster” and they merged their names and [he] is now a big bioinformatics honcho in the NCBI [National Center for Biotechnology Information] in Washington. We discovered by this really laborious technique that there were a small number of proteins which were induced by heat shock
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).