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Artwork by Alba Llach Pou


Eric Wieschaus: From Artist to Nobel Prize Winner

Updated: Jul 12, 2023

I first met Eric on an April afternoon in a sun-drenched classroom with large windows. Dressed in a checkered shirt, the soon to be 76 year old scientist still has bushy grey hair, whose grey color matches that of his neatly trimmed grey moustache. Under his shaggy eyebrows, also grey, square glasses protect two piercing blue eyes, which are often crinkled with a smile. His title, that of Nobel Laureate, obtained in 1995 for Physiology, is intimidating, but he radiates a benevolent sympathy. His speech begins. He starts by summarizing the research that led to his Nobel Prize.

From Eric Wieschaus's mind: 'Drosophila gut formation by the fusion of anterior and posterior endodermal cell groups'

“It’s fascinating for all of us, the idea that a single cell, a fertilised egg, could develop into something as complex as any of us are, with not only our bodies being complex, but our minds - complex, emotions - complex... How that can happen, and how it happens so reproducibly, was something that amazed me as a young student, particularly watching embryos, fly embryos. I knew at that point that, if I was going to be a scientist, that was the question I wanted to answer, or at least work on. I was very fortunate to find a question that both really fascinated me and that was very hard. Because if it's very hard, it can last for your whole lifetime. Even if you never ever completely solve it, at least you have a whole life ahead of you investigating a problem that is really interesting and exciting. So for me, the problem was how embryos develop.”

For a moment, he stops talking. His voice is soft, his speech is relatively slow for an American - but his tone is enthusiastic. He smiles, his eyes sparkle.

“It was clear that ultimately everything in life depends on genes. (…) The new approach we came up with, one that was innovative for its time, was based on a single idea: if there are genes that are important for development, and if they have specific roles, then if one knocks out this gene or that gene, each gene would have what we call a phenotype. The loss of the gene would cause something to happen or would prevent something from happening in the embryo. (…) I chose to do genetics, and wanted to know ALL of the genes that affect the way embryos develop. Identifying every gene seemed essential if we were to build a picture of development based on the logic of development, in the language of the embryo itself. While I imagined I could never stop thinking about embryos like a human would think about embryos, genetics would give a different view of the process, as if it were almost through a different language, the language of genetics: it would be a powerful thing.”

“I guess you were not alone?”, suddenly asks one student.

“Of course not. I did these experiments with a colleague, Christiane Nüsslein-Vohard. Initially we just studied genes that are active in the embryo themselves, and then with another colleague, Trudi Schüpbach, we identified genes that were active in the mother and were required for the development of the embryo.

Those experiments were successful, not just because they gave us a picture of how a fly embryo develops, but because it turns out that many of those same genes (and certainly virtually all of the processes that control the way a fly embryo develops) play roles in the development of all animals and plants on this earth. To a certain extent, by identifying the genes in flies and identifying the language of development in flies, we developed a picture of the language of development in all organisms. I mean, there are different dialects and there are different organisms that emphasise different processes, but the general knowledge and the general picture that emerged from those experiments has been very powerful.”

His penetrating gaze, which successively plants itself in the eyes of each of us, gives me the impression that he is addressing me personally. From time to time, he turns to the board to change slides. When he sees his images of Drosophila embryos, the wonder from his younger days seems intact. Each time he pauses for half a second to admire the images displayed before changing it.

“But the story doesn't end there: there is still a lot to do, also today. Once you describe a process like embryonic development in terms of gene activities, which in a way is in terms of a sequence of gene activities and protein activities, that doesn't really tell you how things work. It tells you the sequence of critical components, but genes can encode proteins that may function as enzymes, as transcription factors that bind to DNA and control the expression of other genes, or they may encode signalling molecules. Every single gene has its own specific function. What you would like to know however is how all of these functions work together to produce the changes that we see. Having learned the language of genes, what you would like to do is to get above that language. You need a more generalizable view, one that almost speaks of embryos in terms of forces, in terms of measurements, in terms of binding, in terms of precision. Getting above the genetic language doesn't mean that you suddenly become nebulous and abstract: you want to build your understanding on concrete observations and measurements, but step a little bit away from the specific activities to find the general. Quantitatively, one of the approaches that is useful for that is physics and theory. I don't do physics, I don't do theory, but I enjoy immensely working with people who do physics and who do theory. I feel in a certain sense that I can have a special impact on their thinking and on the analyses that they do (…) because of what I know and what I've seen in embryos. That's my job in science now: on the one hand, I work with different groups on different problems, to reframe the biological problems in a language that becomes approachable in physics. On the other hand, I do my own experiments in the lab. I still generally work eight hours a day in the lab myself, at the bench, doing experiments that crystallise in some way a phenomenon that has not yet been described.”

No doubt impressed, nobody says anything. Then Eric explicitly asks for questions: "Any questions?” It's not just his voice that calls for them, it's his whole body: his eyebrows raise; his neck tenses, straightening his whole body; his hands contract slightly. He looks at us, and he is waiting for questions, in a sincere way. At the back of the room, a hand rises. His eyes squint, his lips reveal a wide smile, and all the tension in his body is released in a quick, joyful run across the room, towards the raised hand.

‘’You are still doing experiments at the bench… It is very surprising for a scientist at this stage of his career. Why is this important to you?"

His smile continues, delighted.

​​"Because I'm very selfish. I started as a young scientist, and it gave me such pleasure to be in the lab. (…) There is a pleasure in even small experiments when they work. A pleasure in having done an experiment that shows people a truth that they didn't know, a truth that I didn't know. Having done that, to me, is a pleasure. I wouldn't get the same pleasure if I have a group of people and assigned person A to do this, and person B to do that (…) Perhaps some people can run labs with a vision, even if they haven't done the experiments themselves. They imagine that running the operation is sufficient for them to claim ownership of the product. That’s fair, but it’s not for me. I've always had a lab of somewhere between five and ten people max, and I've always enjoyed working with other people; working with my postdocs and with my graduate students, working on things together. But the things that they do are not mine. That's what I mean. I’m selfish: (…) I don't want everything to be mine, but I want some part of everything that my lab produces to be mine. That's always my goal, although sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. There are papers that I've published as a co-author where I can't find anything, any table or any figure or any particular result that I can claim as my own. But I'm always happiest if, when I am a co-author on a paper, I can remember the specific moment in the lab when I got this minor, minor, tiny result that showed up in this paper. That's why I work in the lab. For me, that's where the pleasure is.”

He continues his talk and evokes many different subjects around his research. When the hour is up, I want to continue the conversation. Everything about this man makes me want to get to know him personally. So, after waiting for most of the students to leave, I get up and approach him. Behind his face marked by the years, it is still his gaze that marks me. I am searching for what to say to him, where to start. I read somewhere that he would have liked to have been an artist. I shyly ask him to confirm this. His attitude is benevolent - when he opens his mouth to answer me, like magic, the discussion becomes easy.

“Yes, I wanted to be an artist. I am a visually oriented person, and… I have some talent. I didn't know that science existed until I ended up at a summer science camp for high school kids, and discovered that it was cool, that being in the lab was cool. I thought I could do both art and science, but I knew that when I went to college, I would have to major in science and do art in my free time.

The reality is you can't do both. I didn't have time. I did take some transformative art classes, and worked with models. I have sketchbooks. I carried them around for a long time,but I'm not an artist. I'm a scientist.

It is true, though, that much of my science depends on visual impact, on the ability to recognize structure, and see patterns. It's not just recognition, but also the joy of looking (…) In that sense, my science has been successful because it builds on my frustrated desires to be an artist. I have started painting and drawing again, but only occasionally. I'm better at drawing than I am at painting. (…) My drawings are faster, they have lines, and I'm interested in lines… Lines and certain traces of color are things that I'm more sensitive to.”

While talking, he opens his computer again, and shows me some of his drawings. The line is indeed fast: made with charcoal, the characters seem ready to move - a bit like him, when he is waiting for a question. Unfortunately, Eric has to leave soon. We part ways, talking about how he got started in science, and how he sees the scientific enterprise itself.

“At the beginning, what was important for me was my level of personal contact with one of my professors. Science is social, in the sense that it is not just abstract ideas and experiments. It is in our nature as a human beings, that need for human contact. To think clearly, most of us have to talk to other people. That’s how science works. I think it's often true that people choose to become scientists, in part, because they go into the lab, and they realise that: “ha! This is people talking to other people, trying to do stuff, interacting with each other, arguing, and egos…!” You know, it's just like a little human microcosm of the world, and this is how science appropriately functions.

When you're a young person, you don't really know what science is. One of the really important things in life is the broad realm of what is normal in humans (which I consider to be very, very broad). All of us fit in somewhere on that broad spectrum of human existence and it is the differences in our personalities, talents and proclivities that will make our science successful. Wherever you go, there's a place for you in science and thus science is a possible life.”

Eric leaves me with these words: to him, doing science is one of the wonderful human adventures we can choose to live. This is the adventure he chose.

This article was specialist edited by Eric Wieschaus and copy edited by Maureen Wentling.

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