Thursday, 23 January 2014 08:43

A Modest Eukaryote Steps Out in John Pringle’s E.B. Wilson Lecture

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john pringleJohn Pringle gave the E.B. Wilson Medal
lecture at ASCB 2013 in New Orleans.
Photo Credit: ASCB
In nominating John Pringle for the E.B. Wilson Medal, the ASCB's highest scientific honor, Daniel Lew, who is now at the Duke University Medical Center, described his friend and collaborator as the "father" of yeast cell biology. David Drubin, who introduced Pringle's Wilson lecture at the ASCB Annual Meeting last month in New Orleans, took it further. "Today it's hard to appreciate that back in the '70s and '80s, a lot of cell biologists didn't accept yeast as a eukaryotic cell," explained Drubin, a leading yeast cell biologist at the University of California, Berkeley. "In fact, the common view at the time was that yeast was simply a very ambitious prokaryote." Pringle's 40 years of pioneering work on cell polarity, cell division, and the septin cytoskeleton made yeast a premiere organism for studies of cell biology, said Drubin, adding, "Now thanks to John, we know that yeast are not ambitious prokaryotes but very modest eukaryotes."

Modest or no, the star of Pringle's Wilson lecture was Saccharomyces cerevisiae. (Pringle's complete 2013 E.B. Wilson lecture is here). Pringle paid tribute to family, lab members, colleagues, mentors, and the NIH National Institute for General Medical Science, but it was the humble baker's yeast with its genetic possibilities and deep mysteries that attracted Pringle to the University of Washington in 1970 as Leland Hartwell's first postdoc. Working with baker's yeast, the Hartwell lab identified the family of cell division cycle (cdc) genes that led to Hartwell's 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine or Physiology. Yeast took Pringle on his academic journey with stops at the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and finally Stanford. Along the way, the Pringle lab used yeast to establish many of the principles of cell polarity and to identify the role of cdc42, the RhoGTPase in yeast that shapes the cytoskeleton. His lab also developed fluorescent microscopy in yeast and devised many of the basic molecular and genetic tools that have made Saccharomyces a workhorse of cell research.

"It's been quite a journey," Pringle told his ASCB audience, "that involved a lot of people, but it was a lot of fun." Every step, Pringle stressed, was "curiosity-driven" basic research. "The fact that it has general and medical relevance [today] shouldn't be surprising to anyone in this room even if curiosity-driven research is not such a hot commodity these days for funding by the government or foundations."

Pringle's ASCB Award essay, "An enduring enthusiasm for academic science, but with concerns," is in the special Annual Meeting issue of Molecular Biology of the Cell

John Fleischman

John is ASCB Senior Science Writer and the author among other things of two nonfiction books for older children, "Phineas Gage: A Gruesome But True Story About Brain Science" and "Black & White Airmen," both from Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, Boston.

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