Ann Lengyel, a molecular biologist whose groundbreaking
work has created new insights into how specific genes control
cell shape and movement during the formation of an organism,
died Sept. 25.
Lengyel, 59, a professor of molecular and developmental
biology at UCLA for 28 years, died from a brain tumor. She was a
resident of Pacific Palisades.
“Judith was an amazing figure who broke new ground in
determining how organisms evolve,” said Utpal Banerjee, chair of
the Department of Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology.
“She was a superb scientist, a role model and a mentor for women
in the sciences, and a national leader in advancement of work in
Born in Rochester, New York, Lengyel moved to Los Angeles at
an early age and attended schools in Pacific Palisades. She
attended UCLA as an undergraduate, earning her degree in
microbiology in 1967. She received her Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in
molecular biology in 1972.
Lengyel conducted postdoctoral work at MIT in molecular and
developmental biology, beginning her work on genetic development
in Drosophila (fruit flies) that she would continue for the rest
of her career.
Lengyel joined the UCLA faculty in 1976 as assistant
professor in the Biology Department and the Molecular Biology
Institute. With her first student, Kathryn Anderson, she
pioneered the measurement of the rates of synthesis and turnover
of messenger RNAs in Drosophila embryos — research that opened
the door to modern molecular approaches to investigating
development of organisms.
“Judith conducted landmark research on ‘tailless,’ an
extremely interesting gene with many unique properties that
affect development,” said John Merriam, professor of molecular
and developmental biology at UCLA. “Her work was instrumental in
creating a revolution in biology that had a major impact on our
understanding of how genes control the development of the
“It is likely that the tailless interacts with other signals
to lead to specific head and tail organs. Judith’s work on
tailless led to a more contemporary question: How are the cells
that make these organs actually controlled?” said Merriam.
“Judith played an important role in promoting the idea that
the signaling pathways used in the early embryo are deployed
again at later stages of development, and are also used in
adults to maintain the integrity of organs,” said Karen Lyons,
associate professor of molecular and developmental biology.
“This concept emerged from the collected work of many
scientists, but Judith’s research certainly provided some of the
strongest arguments supporting it. Among her most specific
contributions were many papers clarifying the details of the
tailless signaling pathway. The work was one of the earliest
examples to show that repression of gene activity is as
important for proper development as is activation of gene
Lengyel’s honors include Phi Beta Kappa (1967), elected
fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of
Science (1992), the Distinguished Faculty Teaching Award (1996),
organizer of the West Coast Regional Developmental Biology
Meeting (2001), elected California representative to the
National Fly Board (2001-2004), member of the NIH Fellowships
Study Section (2001-2004), and elected treasurer of the Society
for Developmental Biology (2002-2004).
Lengyel was well-known for her active role in teaching,
mentoring and as a role model for young scientists. She
established and regularly taught the upper-division
developmental biology course, bringing in most of the other
faculty who now teach in this course. She was a leader in many
arenas to promote graduate and undergraduate teaching in
developmental biology, including service as chair of the Access
Developmental Biology Affinity group (1994-1998) and member of
the Access Steering Committee (1996-1998).
Lengyel is the daughter of physicist Bela Lengyel, the
founding chair of the Department of Physics at Cal State
Northridge, and Helen Wilman.
Lengyel is survived by her brother, Thomas; her husband,
Frederick Eiserling; and two stepchildren, Erik and Ingrid.
Reference: UCLA Today