Top scientists get freedom to work

Tucked away in Baltimore, a `home of high-risk research'

October 24, 2006|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN REPORTER

Beyond an ominous sign warning "Beware of Attack Fly," biologist Allan Spradling hunches over a motionless winged speck, gingerly stroking its amber-colored abdomen with forceps.

The speck, knocked out with a whiff of carbon dioxide, is a 3-millimeter-long fruit fly. A staple of genetics research for more than a century, this specimen and its 600,000 brethren bottled on shelves around Spradling's head are helping him tackle one of the hottest questions in biology: How do stem cells work?

Spradling is the director of the Carnegie Institution's department of embryology. If you've never heard of it, you're not alone. Nestled on a woodsy lot behind the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus, the department has for nearly a century been widely considered one of Baltimore's best-kept scientific secrets.

"It's a crown jewel for research," says biologist William Kelly of Emory University, who worked at Carnegie in the late 1990s. "What you have there are people who are at the top of their fields."

In the first half of the 20th century, department scientists were the first to piece together how human embryos develop - insights that remain staples of anatomy texts today. Decades later, they isolated one of the first genes (from a frog) and created the first genetically engineered fruit fly, propelling the understanding of how human genes work.

Notable honors

Lately there has been even stronger confirmation of the department's stature: In September, staff member Joseph Gall won the top prize in U.S. medical science, the Lasker Award. A few weeks later, department alum Andrew Fire earned a Nobel Prize in medicine for experiments on RNA conducted during his 17-year career at Carnegie.

"This is the home of high-risk research," says biologist Alex Schreiber, a junior scientist who might be the only person in the world studying the genetics of flounder development. "They take people with unorthodox ideas and they give you that chance."

Part of the department's secret, says Spradling, is that it hews close to the philosophy of Carnegie Institution founder Andrew Carnegie, the Pittsburgh steel magnate who once said that "no big institution should be erected anywhere."

At a time when many academic labs resemble mini-factories, Carnegie employs just eight senior scientists, a number that hasn't budged in four decades.

To help them stay focused, Carnegie scientists are not required to teach and they receive an annual stipend to help cover research costs, cutting down on the time-consuming bane of academic research: grant applications. As a result, most senior scientists can be found working side by side with underlings in the lab.

Most importantly, there's no tenure at Carnegie. Scientists work under renewable five-year contracts. This system, says Jane Maienschein, a historian of science at Arizona State University who has edited a book on the department, forces scientists to be more creative.

"People who are not really thriving go off and do something else," she says. "It's really quite an unusual institution."

Early research

The embryology department was established in 1913 by Franklin Mall, an anatomist at the Hopkins medical school. Today it's one of six research divisions that make up the Washington, D.C.-based Carnegie Institution (the others are plant biology, Earth and planetary sciences, astronomy, and global ecology).

Mall had been recruited to Hopkins by William Welch, the school's first dean. He was its first anatomist, and like many of his 19th-century colleagues, he was fascinated by the mystery of what occurs inside the womb.

At the time, the only way to find out was to collect dead embryos. Mall wrote to obstetricians across the country and advertised in medical journals. Most of the embryos that physicians sent back were the product of miscarriages or were found during a hysterectomy or autopsy.

Mall and his staff photographed, sliced, mounted and measured each arrival. Then they sculpted 3-D plaster models. By studying them, Carnegie scientists determined that the first eight weeks of life could be divided into 23 distinct stages. They start with a fertilized egg and end with a fully developed embryo more than an inch long. (After that, the embryo becomes a fetus.)

"So much of what we know about human embryological development today is a result of the work they did," says Lynn Morgan, a professor of anthropology at Mount Holyoke College who is writing a book on the Carnegie embryo collection, which eventually surpassed 10,000 specimens.

Now housed at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, it remains the largest in the world.

Some department scientists admit they cringe slightly at the name on their building - the field is more properly known these days as developmental biology. Rather than human embryos, scientists are turning to some of the most primitive organisms to answer the deepest mysteries of biology.

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