Trudi Schüpbach and Eric Wieschaus: A shared passion for nature’s truth

Lynne Hutchison
Published: August, 2008

Life in nature makes us recognize the truth of these things, so look at it diligently, follow it, and do not turn away… For, verily, art is embedded in nature; whoever can draw her out, has her

—Albrecht Dürer

Albrecht Durer. A Young Hare. 1502. Watercolour and gouache on paper. Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna, Austria
In 1502, German painter Albrecht Dürer turned his realistic style to the rough nap of a young hare’s fur and created one of art’s masterpieces. Until that time, paintings of animals had lacked dimension, accuracy or understanding of the mechanisms of life that lend the hare its jet whiskers and velvet toes. Dürer, through precise, methodical observation, fused science with art and transformed how man looks at nature.

It’s no surprise that Dürer is the favorite artist of developmental biologist Eric Wieschaus, Ph.D., Squibb Professor of Molecular Biology at Princeton University.

“I like the technical quality of his work,” says Wieschaus, who dreamed of becoming a painter as a boy in Alabama. “I was drawn to developmental biology because it’s visual. I had this intuitive understanding of where things are, where they should be. You get that from looking.”

Like Dürer, Wieschaus applied his talent for observation and perception to the mysteries of nature -- not on young hares, but on Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruit fly.

Using this tiny, hairless insect as a model, Wieschaus was able to identify the genes that determine cell size, shape and position during embryo development. Mutations in these genes alter the fruit fly’s normal body plan. These genes later proved to have similar or identical matches in humans, and their discovery has helped transform how scientists look at congenital birth defects.

While Wieschaus’ work may never hang in the Louvre, it did bring him the most prestigious award in the world. In 1995, at 48, he received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Edward B. Lewis, Ph.D., of Caltech and Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, Ph.D., of the Max Planck Institute for discoveries about the genetic control of early embryonic development.

“The genetic screens carried out by Wieschaus and Nüsslein-Volhard were driven by pure curiosity, but their discoveries had a tremendous impact,” says Daniela Drummond-Barbosa, Ph.D., assistant professor of Cell and Developmental Biology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “Many of the genes they identified were later implicated in a variety of biological processes with high relevance to human health.”

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