2000Basic SciencesLife Sciences (Molecular Biology, Cell Biology, Neurobiology)
Walter Jakob Gehring photo

Walter Jakob Gehring

  • Switzerland / 1939-2014
  • Developmental Biologist
  • Professor, University of Basel

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.


Brief Biography

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


Discovery of Conserved Developmental Mechanisms

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.



Abstract of the Lecture

The Journey of a Biologist

In this commemorative lecture I present my personal life history, my philosophy and my outlook on life. Starting with the history of the Gehring family which goes back to the year 1084, I describe briefly my grandfather who was a farmer in Rüdlingen, a beautiful small village on the Rhine River in the north of Switzerland, where my father was born in 1903. My father, Jakob Gehring, studied engineering in Zurich and emigrated to France, where he met my mother who is from an Alsatian family. I was born in 1939 in Zurich at the dawn of the Second World War. I spent a happy childhood with my two sisters and my cousin who was like a brother to me. In primary school I had an excellent teacher who was very important for my further development. Gymnasium (High School) was highly competitive, but it sharpened our intellect. As a boy I was drawn into biology by watching the metamorphosis of a butterfly. I studied zoology at the University of Zurich with Ernst Hadorn, one of the leading developmental biologists of his time. In order to learn molecular biology I moved to Alan Garen’s laboratory at Yale University in the United States. In 1964 I married Elisabeth Lott and our older son Stephan was born in Zurich, the younger one, Thomas in New Haven. In 1969 I started my own laboratory at Yale with Erie Wieschaus as my first graduate student. In 1972 we moved back to Switzerland where I became Professor at the Biozentrum of the University of Basel. I have largely concentrated my work on the little fruit fly Drosophila and the genetic control of its development. Together with my collaborators I have discovered the homeobox and identified the universal master control gene for the development and evolution of the eyes. I try to describe the motivations and philosophy behind my scientific work, and how scientific discoveries are made.


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Challenge to Evolutionary Development Biology: Exploring of Life through Molecules

Sunday, November 12, 2000
Kyoto International Conference Center
Coordinator & Moderator
Shin-Ichi Nishikawa, Chairman of the Kyoto Prize Screening Committee; Professor, Graduate School of Medicine, Kyoto University
Inamori Foundation
Kyoto Prefectural Government, Kyoto City Government, NHK
With the cooperation
The Japanese Society of Developmental Biologists, The Molecular Biology of Japan


Opening Shin-Ichi Nishikawa
Greeting Toyomi Inamori
Managing Director, the Inamori Foundation
Introduction of Laureate Masatoshi Takeichi
Member of the Kyoto Prize Committee; Professor, Graduate School of Biostudies, Kyoto University
Laureate Lecture Walter Jakob Gehring Laureate
Master Control Genes in Eye Development and Evolution
Lecture Shinichi Aizawa, Professor, Institute of Molecular Embryology and Genetics, Kumamoto University
Developmental Patterning in Vertebrate Head
Question - and - Answer
Lecture Yoshiki Sasai, Professor, Institute for Frontier Medical Sciences, Kyoto University
Inversion of the Dorsal-Ventral Axis and the Origin of the Central Nervous
Question - and - Answer
Lecture Yoshinori Shichida, Professor, Graduate School of Science, Kyoto University
Functional Diversity of the Photoreceptive Proteins in Vision
Question - and - Answer
Lecture Mitsuyasu Hasebe, Professor, National Institute for Basic Biology and PRESTO
Origin and Evolution of Floral Homeotic Genes
Question - and - Answer
Closing Shin-Ichi Nishikawa