|Dr. Robert Waterston|
|Born||Robert Hugh Waterston
September 17, 1943
|Alma mater||Princeton University
University of Chicago
|Known for||Caenorhabditis elegans
|Awards||George W. Beadle Award (2000)
Gairdner Award (2002)
Dan David Prize (2002)
Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. Prize (2002)
Gruber Prize in Genetics (2005)
|Fields||Genome Sciences, Cell Biology, Genetics|
University of Washington
Robert Waterston was born in 1943 in Detroit, Michigan. He went to Princeton as an undergraduate where he majored in engineering while spending as much time as possible studying the humanities; he wrote his senior dissertation on the plays of Eugene O'Neill. By this time he was thinking of switching to medicine but had never studied biology.
While on what we might now call a 'gap year' visit to Germany he took courses in biology – in German – and returned to take up a place at the school of medicine of the University of Chicago.
By 1972 he had acquired both MD and PhD degrees, and a taste for research: "I was more interested in advancing medicine than going into practice," he says. A chance meeting with Sydney Brenner on a physiology summer school at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in 1969 had introduced him to the grand project then beginning at the MRC's Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge, England: to understand life at the molecular level through studying the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans. At the earliest possible opportunity, Waterston left for Cambridge to become the third American post-doctoral researcher to join Brenner's group to work on the worm.
Brenner was looking for worms with mutations that affected their behavior, as part of the search for genes controlling the nervous system and muscles. Waterston took on the task of looking at the cellular and molecular level for abnormalities in the muscle mutants, and within a few years had made discoveries that led to the cloning of genes for two important muscle proteins.
He returned to the USA in 1976 as an assistant professor of anatomy and neurobiology, at Washington University in St. Louis and set up a lab dedicated to studying the molecular biology of muscle in the worm. There, he and his colleagues identified many more muscle genes and investigated their role in muscle assembly and contraction, as well as discovering and analyzing transposable elements and nonsense suppressors. A few years later he switched to the Department of Genetics, where by 1991 he became chair.
In the mid-1980s he made a sabbatical visit to the LMB, ostensibly to continue his work with Brenner. But the only space available was in the room where John Sulston and Alan Coulson were beginning to map the worm genome. Waterston joined them, and after his return to St Louis the worm map became a collaborative project between the two labs.
In 1989, one of the first Human Genome Project grants went to Waterston and Sulston to begin the sequencing of the worm genome. They were so successful that at the same time that the Wellcome Trust established the Sanger Centre with Sulston at its head, Waterston received funding from the National Human Genome Research Institute to undertake large-scale human sequencing at his Washington University lab. The partnership became the first to complete the sequence of a multicellular organism when the worm genome was published in December 1998, and both labs played key roles in the sequencing of the human genome, with Waterston’s lab contributing more of the finished sequence than any other US lab. The partnership went on have leading roles in the sequencing of both the mouse and chimpanzee genomes.
Waterston, like his colleague John Sulston, has always been committed to the free release of scientific information, and he was an influential voice in establishing the Bermuda Principles on data sharing in 1996. In the past few years Waterston and Sulston have jointly won numerous awards for their scientific work and their support for the scientific community, including the Gairdner Award, the General Motors prize, the Dan David Prize and the George W Beadle medal of the Genetics Society of America. Waterston also received the Gruber Prize in genetics.
In January 2003, Waterston moved from St Louis to become the new William Gates III Endowed Chair in Biomedical Science, Professor and Chair of the Department of Genome Sciences, at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is leading research into the genetic control of development in the nematode. He has developed novel technology to decipher automatically the dynamic expression of genes with single cell resolution and minute time resolution and applied the technology to describe the expression patterns of more than 200 transcription factors. As part of the NHGRI modENCODE project, with collaborators he has collected data that accurately defines the complement of both protein coding and many noncoding genes of the nematode. In another modENCODE project he and collaborators are defining the binding sites for those transcription factors. They are now combining these sets of data to construct increasingly complete regulatory networks directing C. elegans embryonic development. Recently, he has used next generation sequencing methods to develop a collection of mutant C. elegans strains containing more than million mutations to probe the function of the more than 20,000 C. elegans genes.
Collaborations, both inside and outside of the university, have helped the Genome Sciences Department bolster an exciting teamwork atmosphere. It has formed close ties with the School of Medicine to study human variation more effectively. The faculty also partner with clinicians interested in applying genomic technologies to medical problems. In addition, the Department has established a strong outreach program. By bringing leading-edge science and ethics teachers to K-12 classes, the Department helps address the unique social and ethical challenges implied in the new discoveries in genome sciences. Today, the UW Department of Genome Sciences is carrying on its legacy of collaboration. It is a world pioneer of genome interpretation and technology innovation, ranking in the top three Genetics/ Genomics graduate programs in the United States It brings national prominence to the University of Washington and is at the forefront in unlocking life-changing secrets of the genome.
- Adapted from the Wellcome Trust biography written by Georgina Ferry.