Leader of Evo-Devo Field, Rudy Raff, Dies

The Indiana University professor was known for his research on the evolution of organismal development.

Jef Akst
Jef Akst

Jef (an unusual nickname for Jennifer) got her master’s degree from Indiana University in April 2009 studying the mating behavior of seahorses. After four years of diving off the Gulf...

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Jan 9, 2019

Rudolf “Rudy” Raff, a pioneer in the field of evolutionary development—also known as evo-devo—passed away last weekend (January 5) at age 77. The longtime Indiana University (IU) professor had retired last January, after nearly half a century at the school. 

“Rudy was a pioneer of the field now known as Evo-Devo and his work received numerous awards and honors,” Gregory Demas, chair of the biology department at IU, wrote in a Facebook post announcing Raff’s death. “Perhaps more important than his scientific and scholarly accomplishments (and there were indeed many), Rudy was a wonderful colleague, friend, and mentor to many of us at IU, and he was vital to the growth and success of the department over the last half-century.” (Disclosure: Demas was on this reporter’s graduate committee at IU and Raff taught one of her classes.)

Raff was born in Quebec in 1941 and eight years later moved with his family to Pittsburgh, where he became a frequent visitor of the city’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History. He was particularly drawn to the dinosaur exhibit, according to a biosketch written by his IU colleagues last year, intrigued by “the growing realization that life on earth had gone through many changes, leaving traces of past worlds, recognizable to those who care to look closely.” As a teenager, he volunteered in the museum’s Section of Insects and Spiders, according to an obituary on Dignity Memorial.

After receiving a PhD in biochemistry from Duke University in 1967, Raff, who was an officer in the US Navy, was assigned to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where he tested the effects of radiation on various biological materials. He also completed a postdoc at MIT, where he began his research into developmental biology, studying the role of maternally derived messenger RNA in sea urchin embryos. 

Raff accepted a position as assistant professor at IU in 1971. His research, which continued to focus on sea urchins and brought him to the University of Sydney in Australia yearly for three decades, interrogated how organisms develop and how that process evolved. He identified similarities in the developmental processes of distantly related organisms, undergirded by conserved genes and developmental pathways. He also studied how novel traits could arise from existing genetic variation.

Early in Raff’s career, “developmental and evolutionary biologists had diverged in their research approaches to such a degree that neither thought much could be learned from the other,” according to his colleagues’ biosketch. “Rudy became a leading force in re-integrating both fields, founding a new discipline in the process, and inspiring a new generation of scientists along the way.”

Raff is survived by his wife and longtime scientific collaborator Beth Raff, a daughter, a son, and four grandchildren.