Fruit Fly Geneticist Bruce Baker Dies

The Stanford University professor was known for his work on sex determination and courtship in flies.

Jul 30, 2018
Diana Kwon

Bruce Baker, a geneticist who studied gene-behavior interactions in Drosophila melanogaster, died on July 1. He was 72 years old. 

“Bruce had enormous respect for the details of science, not only the science in his own lab but also that of his peers,” Deborah Andrew, a biologist at Johns Hopkins and one of Baker’s former graduate students, writes in an obituary posted by the Genetics Society of America. 

Baker was born in Swannanoa, North Carolina in 1945. After completing his undergraduate studies at Reed College in 1966 and receiving a PhD from the University of Washington in 1971, Baker joined the faculty at the University of California, San Diego. In 1986, he became a professor at Stanford University, where he remained for more than two decades before moving to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus in 2008. 

Over the course of his career, Baker published more than 150 papers, primarily focused on the cellular and genetic mechanisms that determine the development of sex-specific characteristics in fruit flies. He also investigated dosage compensation, the strategies used by fruit flies to deal with having one X chromosome instead of two. 

Among Baker’s scientific contributions is the discovery that the gene encoding the transcription factor Fruitless plays a key role in male-specific courtship behaviors. Studies led by Baker and his colleague, neurobiologist Barry Dickson, revealed that Fruitless (fru) influenced male flies’ attraction to females and, when expressed in females, led them to court other female flies. 

The discovery that a single gene could modify complex behaviors came as a surprise to scientists during that time. Prior to Baker’s studies on the fru gene, “[it] was generally thought that genes specified neuronal connections and properties, but that it was the complex interactions between the neurons that gave rise to behavior,” Stanford neuroscientist Liqun Luo says in a statement

In 1992, Baker shared the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Award in Molecular Biology with geneticist Thomas Cline for their work on the genetic and molecular underpinnings of sex determination in fruit flies. Baker became a member of NAS in 1993. 

Former students and colleagues remember Baker as a generous and encouraging mentor. “He was very much someone who never told you what experiment to do or how to think about a question,” Devanand Manoli, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco and a former graduate student in Baker’s lab, says in the statement. “One of his favorite pieces of advice was ‘When you have a good hypothesis, don’t give it up.’”

Baker is survived by his wife, sister, and brother.  

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