I’d seen those changes come in the early days of molecular biology every couple of years. Generally the day somebody told you their experimental result, you knew that person would win the Nobel Prize. And they did, they always did. You could tell they would because your whole way of thinking was changed by that one instant. Now the discoveries fall more into a framework that’s familiar: Somebody gets another gene for another disease; it’s always fantastic and sometimes it’s very surprising, but it’s another one, not the first one.
Why did you make the transition from viruses to zebra- fish research?
I had the feeling that the field I was in had finished this first phase that had been super exciting, and the second phase didn’t fit as well in my lab. The possibility of applying genetics in the zebra-fish system-actually finding the genes that were responsible for developmental processes and for behaviors in a vertebrate animal-was something people hadn’t imagined you might really be able to do. I thought it would be fun to see whether one could make that possible, I was drawn to that.
What is your lab’s goal with the fish?
We have a very sharp focus, and it’s very big but very simple, very clear: We just want to understand how you start with a single cell and make an animal, that’s all. And we know that it is done by genes.
If you think about early development, you’re really talking about two processes: one cell becoming many (cell division), and how those cells organize themselves in three-dimensional space to make such an incredibly complex thing as a hand, a face, a brain, a pancreas. When the process of cell division goes out of control it becomes the process of cancer, and when the process of cellular organization goes awry you end up with birth defects. So if you could understand how genes allow development to occur normally and abnormally, you would understand life and illness.
We know that there are about 2,400 genes that are essential to make a normal zebra-fish embryo. If we have enough resources and enough energy, we’d love to get them all.