Edward De Robertis is the Norman Sprague Professor of Biological Chemistry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. He is a developmental biologist recognized for the cloning of the first Hox gene in vertebrates and the discovery of the Chordin/Tolloid/BMP morphogen gradient. These gene networks that regulate antero-posterior and dorsal-ventral cell differentiation were present in Urbilateria, the common ancestor of all bilateral animals. De Robertis was born in Boston and raised in Uruguay since age 3, where he completed MD studies, followed by a PhD in Chemistry in Argentina and postdoctoral training with Sir John Gurdon at MRC-LMB. He has been at UCLA since 1985. De Robertis is a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and corresponding member of the Latin American Academy of Sciences, the Buenos Aires Academy of Sciences, and the Academy of Sciences of Uruguay. He received Honoris Causa doctorates from the Universités Sorbonne in Paris and his alma mater the University of the Republic of Uruguay. De Robertis received the Ross Harrison prize in Developmental Biology, the Society for Developmental Biology Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Kowalevsky Medal in Evolution and Development.

Research Interests

Edward De Robertis studies the molecular patterning mechanisms that control the evolution of the animal body plan. He has cloned several genes that code for secreted antagonists of growth factors that are used by embryonic cells to form morphogen gradients. These proteins control tissue differentiations in all bilateral animals. In 1984 Edward De Robertis, together with his close colleague the late Walter Gehring, isolated the first vertebrate development-controlling gene, now called Hox-C6. Hox genes encode DNA-binding proteins that determine the differentiation of cells along the antero-posterior body axis, both in fruit flies and vertebrates. In the 1990s De Robertis carried out the systematic dissection of the molecular mechanisms that mediate embryonic induction. In 1924 Hans Spemann and Hilde Mangold had identified a region of the amphibian embryo that was able to induce the formation of Siamese twins after transplantation. De Robertis isolated genes expressed in this region. He discovered Chordin, a protein secreted by dorsal cells that binds Bone Morphogenetic Protein (BMP) growth factors, facilitating their transport to the ventral side of the embryo, where Chordin is digested by the Tolloid protease, releasing BMPs for signaling. This flow of growth factors determines dorsal (back) to ventral (belly) tissue differentiations in most bilateral animals, such as fruit flies, spiders, early chordates and mammals. However, the Chordin/Tolloid/BMP axis was inverted during evolution between invertebrates and vertebrates. The De Robertis laboratory is currently investigating the regulation of the Wnt signaling pathway by pinocytosis, multivesicular endosomes and lysosomes, and its integration with embryonic patterning. In sum, De Robertis has been a pioneer in the remarkable current realization that the molecular mechanisms of antero-posterior and dorsal-ventral patterning are common to all animal embryos. These discoveries were foundational for the young scientific discipline of Evolution and Development, commonly known as Evo-Devo. The use of conserved gene networks during development has channeled the outcomes of evolution by Natural Selection arising from Urbilateria, the last common ancestor of vertebrates and invertebrates.

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Primary Section

Section 22: Cellular and Developmental Biology

Secondary Section

Section 21: Biochemistry