Judith 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 molecular biology.”

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 embryo.

“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 activity.”

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