Int. J. Dev. Biol. 53: 725 - 731 (2009)
doi: 10.1387/ijdb.072575mr
© UPV/EHU Press

Molecular tools, classic questions - an interview with Clifford Tabin

Michael K. Richardson*

Institute of Biology, Leiden University, Leiden, The Netherlands

ABSTRACT Clifford J. Tabin has made pioneering contributions to several fields in biology, including retroviruses, oncogenes, developmental biology and evolution. His father, a physicist who worked in the Manhattan project, kindled his interest in science. Cliff later chose to study biology and started his research career when the world of recombinant DNA was opening up. In Robert Weinberg’s lab, he constructed the Moloney leukaemia virus (MLV-tk), the first recombinant retrovirus that could be used as a eukaryotic vector. He also discovered the amino acid changes leading to the activation of Ras, the first human oncogene discovered. As an independent researcher, he began in the field of urodele limb regeneration, and described the expression of retinoic acid receptor and Hox genes in the blastema. Moving to the chick model, his was one of the labs that simultaneously cloned the first vertebrate hedgehog cognates and showed that sonic hedgehog functions as a morphogen in certain developmental contexts, in particular as an organizing activity during limb development. Comparative studies by Ann Burke in his lab showed that differences in boundaries of Hox gene expression across vertebrate phylogeny correlated with differences in skeletal morphology. The Tabin lab also discovered a genetic pathway responsible for mediating left-right asymmetry in vertebrates; helped uncover the pathways leading to dorsoventral limb patterning; made contributions to our understanding of skeletal morphogenesis and identified developmental mechanisms that might underpin the diversification of the beak in Darwin’s finches. Despite being a professor of genetics at Harvard, Tabin says: "I have never done a genetics experiment in my life!". This is changing with his latest project: the genetics of Mexican cavefish. I interviewed Cliff on the 3rd October, 2007, in his office at Harvard.


pattern formation, hox gene, evolution, development, positional information

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