What happened when the science bug bit?


Courtesy of Denis Duboule

It overrode everything else. It's a little bit of a problem now; it's all or nothing. It's something you are always thinking about, even when climbing a mountain, or swimming with children in the sea.

What else changed?

I have stopped playing tennis, stopped playing music, but I ride a bike; it's also obsessional. I race against myself. It may have something to do with reaching 50. [He's 49] You have to show yourself that you can still do things.

And in the winter?

I snowboard. I am the oldest one on the slope, I'm afraid. I met a teenager in the cable car and he looked at me and said, "Wow, it's great to see someone your age still doing this." I thought, 'Wait until it happens to you.'

You've experienced some controversy in your career

Yes, with...

What are you working on now?

Limb development. We have evidence that these genes have been responsible for the appearance of hands and feet over the course of evolution, 350 million years ago. We hope that by understanding how an embryo makes hands and feet, we may have a hint how structures appeared in the course of evolution. You can survive without a brain, but not without digits. Without digits, an animal couldn't have colonized a terrestrial environment or come out of the water.

So this is a long-term project?

If you look at the United States, except for researchers at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a scientist has to deliver within two years. Our projects last for 10. The Swiss government is much more patient. In the US, you can acquire money very rapidly, and lose it very rapidly. It is the opposite here.

What else are you working on?

External genitalia. You can guess the jokes we had on this. If we remove the six genes of the hand, we remove the penis. We think that these two structures, in the course of evolution, appeared together. When you get out of the water, and want to walk, you need digits and an internal reproduction method. In water, sperm is floating, and the female comes along and she can become fertilized. That doesn't work on land. When we published in Nature, we went on CNN.

What are your favorite papers?

One paper is our discovery of genes in limbs.1 It showed that the genes we use to build our trunks are the same to build arms and legs. At that time, people were looking for limb-specific genes. It was the first example, in evolution, that genes were recycled into other things.

Another paper showed that vertebrates were using the same genetic system, located on the same spot in the genome, as flies.2 Because of these two papers, the lab became well known.

What complaints would your coworkers have about you?

I am always asking for more. Repeat this and do that, and sometimes, they are really [annoyed]. Also, my lack of authority. I discuss that openly with them. I want to know if the experiment worked, and I don't want to make big decisions. If someone comes to my office and starts to cry, they will get everything. Don't say that too loudly.

What would they praise you about?

I am totally accessible. They can come anytime. And I have no problem saying that I am wrong. There is nothing worse than being so authoritative that when you are wrong, no one will tell you.

Christine Bahls can be contacted at cbahls@the-scientist.com

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