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Nobelist, Co-Discoverer of 'Blueprint' Genes
Long-Time NICHD Grantee Lewis Dies

By Robert Bock

Dr. Edward B. Lewis, a long-time NICHD grantee who received the Nobel Prize for discovering the genes that serve as "blueprints" for the formation of limbs and organs in the early embryo, died recently of cancer at age 86. His contributions came from studying the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, an important research model in the field of genetics. He was a 32-year recipient of NICHD support.

"Edward Lewis moved the study of human development a giant step forward," said NICHD director Dr. Duane Alexander. "His work opened a new field of inquiry into the genetic mechanisms underlying many classes of birth defects."

Dr. Edward B. Lewis
Lewis made his discoveries long before the tools of molecular biology had become available. He identified a mutant fruit fly with two sets of wings, instead of the normal single set, and demonstrated that the genetic defect caused the abnormality. Through the years, Lewis isolated other mutants, eventually mapping genes controlling such traits as eye and limb development to specific locations on the third chromosome. These genes were later named "homeotic selector genes," from the Greek word "homeos," meaning "likeness." He determined that these genes appear on the chromosome in an order corresponding to the position of the body parts they control.

In 1995, Lewis shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Drs. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard and Eric F. Wieschaus, who identified the genes controlling the development of the fruit fly's body segments. Wieschaus is also a long-term NICHD grantee. The genes the three researchers discovered were later found to have counterparts in mammals and have critical functions in the development of mice and humans.

"Dr. Lewis' work in the fruit fly had a major impact on the understanding of normal development in humans," said Dr. Max Muenke, chief of the Medical Genetics Branch at NHGRI. "Numerous birth defects can now be explained by mutations in human genes analogous to those Dr. Lewis first identified in the fruit fly."

One such birth defect, craniosynostosis, affects roughly one in every 2,500 infants, Muenke added. The disorder results in a premature fusing of the bones in the skull. Human counterparts to other genes Lewis discovered are involved in disorders of the brain, spine and eyes. Still others have been implicated in cleft lip and palate and in polydactyly (extra fingers and toes).

"Dr. Lewis was very frugal in his requests and resourceful in his use of NIH grant funds," explained Dr. Tyl Hewitt, chief of NICHD's Developmental Biology, Genetics and Teratology Branch. "Considering the impact of his findings, he made remarkable discoveries on a shoe string budget."

Lewis was a long-time NICHD grantee who received the Nobel Prize for discovering the genes that serve as "blueprints" for the formation of limbs and organs in the early embryo.

Lewis received his first grant from NICHD in 1972, and it was renewed each time he applied for support. In 1997, he received a MERIT (Method To Extend Research In Time) Award, which supported his work until his death.

Born in 1918, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Lewis developed an interest in fruit fly genetics as a high school student. He was awarded a bachelor's degree from the University of Minnesota in 1939 and earned his doctorate in genetics from the California Institute of Technology in 1942. Except for 4 years in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, he remained with Caltech for his entire career. He became chairman of the biology program in 1966, a position he held until he retired from the faculty in 1988.

Although he gave up his faculty position, Lewis continued his research until shortly before his death. With NICHD support, he took advantage of new techniques and advances in molecular genetics and used them to gain a greater understanding of the genes he had discovered.

Lewis was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Society (London), and many other organizations. In addition to the Nobel Prize, Lewis received numerous awards for his scientific contributions, including the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research in 1991 and the National Medal of Science in 1990. In 2003, he was inducted into the NICHD Hall of Honor, an award presented by the institute in recognition of scientists it has supported who have made outstanding contributions to their research fields.

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