SDB e-news

  Summer 2012

   Society for Developmental Biology

Back to Summer 2012

SDB e-news Home

Interview with 2012 Developmental Biology-SDB Lifetime Achievement Award Winner Antonio García-Bellido

Antonio García-Bellido is said to have put Spain on the scientific map.  From his early days, he was interested in understanding morphogenesis.  Using Drosophila, he focused on how developmental genes act at the cellular level to control morphogenesis.  After college, he left Spain to work with entomologist, Vincent Wigglesworth at the University of Cambridge, and then returned to Spain where he received his PhD in 1962.  He went on to do postdoctoral work with Ernst Hadorn at the University of Zürich, and then Alfred Sturtevant and Ed Lewis at the California Institute of Technology. In the 1970s he again returned to Spain where he and Severo Ochoa, established the Center for Molecular Biology, which has been a premier institute for the past 30 years.

Much of García-Bellido ground-breaking work came from his use of genetic mosaics.  He was the first to construct a fate map of the Drosophila embryo through genetic mosaics.  He discovered developmental compartments or boundaries within an embryo in which genes control spatial identity.  While controversial at the time, eventually in situ hybridization revealed stripes of gene expression in Drosophila blastoderm embryos.  He is well known for his work on homeotic genes in which he introduced the concept of upstream 'selector' genes which act to control downstream 'realizator' (effector) genes that are responsible for cell behaviors that drive morphogenesis.  His genetic analysis of the achaete-scute gene complex provided important clues into how spatial patterns are built during development.

García-Bellido received the Developmental Biology-SDB Lifetime Achievement Award for his numerous scientific achievements as well as the impact he has made on the field through mentoring generations of developmental biologists who run labs throughout the world.  Prior to the SDB 71st Annual Meeting in July, García-Bellido was interviewed about his career and receiving this award.

What has been the most rewarding part of your career up until now?

Certainly, the nomination of Foreign Member of the Royal Society UK. Also, the opportunity of knowing great scientists all over the world and the discovery of splendid students. It is the human component of a scientific career.

Have you had any great mentors in your life, scientific or otherwise?

My father, Ernst Hadorn, Alfred Sturtevant, and François Jacob.

My father was a Professor in Classical Archaeology and provided a humanistic, historicist mentality at home. Alfred Sturtevant gave me his vision of the origins of genetics, goals mentality, and scale of values. He had a historicist mentality as well. Ernst Hadorn was a great “boss”, directing and organizing a very complex Institute. He taught me the necessary finesse directing my group of students. François Jacob was a very sensitive person and imaginative scientist (geneticist) and, in addition, a philosopher of biology. I learned from him my theoretical inclinations and ambition to deal with complex matters.

What has been your mentoring philosophy over the years?

The search for origins and causes. “Search for origins” is a way of approaching problems, is an attitude in the personal scale of values. “Causes” means analytical ordering of the steps of a process since its beginnings. It includes the categorization of elements with the aim of giving them relevance and meaning.

You have been called the founding father of the Spanish developmental biology community having trained exceptional developmental biologists and influenced scientists throughout the world. How has developmental biology in Spain grown since you started your lab more than forty years ago?

Developmental biology is now a major field in the basic sciences in Spain.

What does receiving the Developmental Biology-SDB Lifetime Achievement Award mean to you?

A pleasure because [it is] the manifest recognition of my work by my colleagues.

Mike Levine, García-Bellido, Peter Lawrence, and William McGinnis following the SDB awards ceremony at the 71st SDB Annual Meeting in Montreal, Canada.