2000 Kyoto Prize Laureates

Basic Sciences

Life Sciences(Molecular Biology, Cell Biology, Neurobiology)

Walter Jakob Gehring

/  Developmental Biologist

1939 - 2014

Professor, University of Basel

Commemorative Lectures

The Journey of a Biologist


11 /11 Sat

Place:Kyoto International Conference Center


Challenge to Evolutionary Development Biology: Exploring of Life through Molecules


11 /12 Sun

13:10 - 17:25

Place:Kyoto International Conference Center

Achievement Digest

Discovery of Conserved Developmental Mechanisms

Through his research into the developmental process of Drosophila, Professor Gehring discovered the homeobox and its conserved developmental mechanisms, which represented a groundbreaking contribution to the basic understanding of the morphogenesis of organisms. He is a developmental biologist who has made significant contributions to recent advances in biology.


Professor Gehring, through his research into the developmental process of Drosophila, made a groundbreaking achievement for the understanding of the fundamental rule of the morphogenesis of organisms, and has made significant contributions to recent advances in life sciences.

He had the foresight to adopt a molecular biological approach to his genetic studies of Drosophila, an insect that had provided important information as to the roles of specific genes in the morphogenesis of organisms. In 1983, he succeeded in cloning Antennapedia, one of the homeotic genes,which determines the characteristics of the body segments of Drosophila, and elucidated its structure. Furthermore, in the Antennapedia gene, he found a specific base sequence common to all homeotic genes and called it “homeobox.” This sequence serves as a controller to determine the fate of each gene for the head, legs, wings, trunk and other body segments of Drosophila. More importantly, the homeobox was shown to occur universally in species ranging from lower organisms to humans, and to regulate segmental specificity in the same fashion across all species. This achievement provided a key paradigm for understanding the mechanisms by which genetic information controls morphogenesis, arguably one of the most complicated biological phenomena. Professor Gehring’s work thus made a significant impact on the entire field of embryology and on biology in general. In addition, he expanded the scope of his research to analyze the role of homeobox-containing genes in developmental processes and to elucidate the molecular mechanisms by which proteins termed homeodomains bind with DNA under direction of the homeobox. In doing so, he clarified the mechanism by which the expression of morphogenesis-regulating genes is controlled. For example, he for the first time revealed the master gene for the initial direction for the formation of the organ eye through his experiments of induction of ectopic eyes in Drosophila, and of expression of the mouse Small eye gene in Drosophila.Through these experiments, Professor Gehring found that a master gene for eye formation occurs across species, and that eye formation is controlled by this gene in all organisms,whether vertebrates or invertebrates, and demonstrated the conservation of development-controlling genes through the long course of evolution and the involvement of a mechanism highly conserved across species in the control of the developmental process. These studies at the molecular level have laid the foundation for Evolutionary Developmental Biology, a new field of embryology dealing with morphological diversity and evolution in organisms.

In short, Professor Gehring has made landmark breakthroughs fundamental to the understanding of evolution, biological phylogeny and diversity, as well as embryology and genetics, all of which represent significant contributions to the basic understanding of life.

For these reasons, the Inamori Foundation is pleased to bestow upon Professor Gehring the 2000 Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences.



Born in Zurich, Switzerland
Diploma in Zoology, University of Zurich
Research Associate, University of Zurich
Ph. D., University of Zurich
Postdoctoral fellowship, Yale University, U. S. A.
Assistant Professor, Dept. of Anatomy and Dept. of Molecular Biophysics, Yale University
Full Professor, Dept. of Cell Biology, University of Basel
Selected Awards and Honors
Otto Naegeli-Prize
Warren Triennial Prize, Harvard Medical School
Dr. Albert Wander Preis, Wander AG. Bern
Runnstrom Medal, Stockholm
March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology, NY
The US National Academy of Sciences, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, French "Académie des Sciences", Royal Society
Major Works
Clonal analysis of determination dynamics in cultures of imaginal discs in Drosophila melanogaster. Develop. Biol. 16, 1967
A homologous protein-coding sequence in Drosophila homeotic genes and its conservation in other metazoans. (with Garber, R. L. and others) Cell 37, 1984
Homeotic genes, the homeobox, and the genetic control of development. Cold Spring Harb. Symp. Quant. Biol. 50, 1985
Homeoboxes in the study of development. Science 236, 1987
Homology of the eyeless gene in Drosophila to the Small eye gene in mice and Aniridia in humans. (with Walldorf, U. and others) Science 265, 1994
Introduction of ectopic eyes by targeted expression of the eyeless gene in Drosophila. (with Georg, H. and others) Science 267, 1995

Profile is at the time of the award.