Michael Ashburner on Scientific Achievement
  Michael Ashburner     Biography    
Recorded: 08 May 2008

Well on the genetics side, what we’ve done the last few – well we have started something new now but – what really we’ve been working on – So when did we talk last? 2003 was it? Because one big change in the last two, three years, has been the availability of sequences, not only of Drosophila melanogaster but of eleven other species. So thirty years ago, 1976… We’ve got twelve [species] now all together. I think we are about to get another six. So thirty years ago I worked for several years with a French scientist called Francoise Lemeunier looking at the chromosome evolution in Drosophila, using polytene chromosomes. So when the sequences came out eighteen months ago, two years ago, it was a chance to go back and relook at that, at a very much higher resolution because looking at polytene chromosomes you had about maybe 100 kb maybe 200 kb half a megabase resolution for looking at chromosome change and now of course the sequences, in principle the sequences offer you kind of base pair resolution to look at change. So, we could actually go, with a couple of post-docs: José Ranz who is now in Irvine and Casey Burton who is in Manchester. We took a couple of species and mostly computationally, a bit experimentally, looked at chromosome evolution and not so much to see how right or how wrong we were thirty years ago, but to try and understand the mechanism, mechanisms behind chromosome evolution. So, for example, two of these species: Drosophila melanogaster and Drosophila yakuba. Yakuba is an African species which has separated from melanogaster, oh perhaps twelve, fifteen million years ago and their chromosomes are similar, but they differ by just under thirteen versions and we worked those out, Francoise and I worked those out from the chromosomes. And …but we couldn’t because the resolution of chromosome analysis is so low, that we had to sequence, we couldn’t even begin to speculate about mechanisms of chromosome evolution, but now we can. So, we’ve been doing that and that’s still going on, we’re still trying now, actually right now, to finish the last paper on that with Jose. But I think that’ll be the end of it for me because Jose’s left and I think I’ll stop that work now. But the new thing we are looking at is, again with a post-doc, a Portugese post-doc called Luis Tejera, looking at interactions between viruses and Drosophila and that’s turned up a big surprise.

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