Gerald R. Fink
Member, Whitehead Institute
Professor of Genetics, MIT
Whitehead Member Gerry Fink developed baker's yeast as a model for studying the fundamental biology of all organisms. Fink's creative use of classical genetics, biochemistry, and molecular biology has yielded numerous discoveries in biology. His lab has pioneered a better understanding of gene regulation, mutation, and recombination.
Topping the list of Fink's seminal contributions to the field was his development of a technique for "transforming" yeast that allowed researchers to introduce a foreign piece of DNA into yeast cells and study the inheritance and expression of that DNA. This technique laid the groundwork for the commercial use of yeast as biological factories for manufacturing vaccines and other drugs and set the stage for similar manipulations in more complex organisms.
Fink's discovery of filamentation in yeast uncovered a mechanism by which disease-causing fungi switch from a benign to infectious form and invade human tissues. The analysis of this switch provided the scientific basis for the search for new antibiotics. More recently, Fink used whole genome profiling to identify metabolic pathways responsible for fungal virulence that do not occur in humans and, thus, provide targets for drugs that are specific to pathogenic fungi. He has also identified a genetic mechanism by which pathogenic fungi can quickly alter their outer coatings, or appearance, and thus potentially evade the immune system.
Fink was instrumental in introducing Arabidopsis thaliana as a model organism for studying plant development. He identified a mechanism of hormone signaling and outlined the key steps in the plant's response to gravity. Most recently, he uncovered mutants that enable plants to be grown in water as salty as seawater.
In 2003, Fink chaired the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Research Standards and Practices to Prevent the Destructive Use Application of Biotechnology. This work provided the nation with critical guidance on how to deal with the threat of bioterrorism without jeopardizing scientific progress.
Fink is a Founding Member of the Whitehead Institute and American Cancer Society Professor of Genetics at MIT. He was director of the Whitehead from 1990 to 2001. Fink received his PhD degree in genetics from Yale University and served for 15 years on the faculty of Cornell University. A past president of the Genetics Society of America, he is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the Institute of Medicine.
- Pioneered field of yeast molecular biology
- Developed a method for genetically engineering salt and drought tolerant plants
- National Academy of Sciences/U.S. Steel Foundation Award in Molecular Biology
- Awarded 2001 George W. Beadle Medal by the Genetics Society of America
- Received first honorary doctorate awarded by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
- Elected to American Philosophical Society, the oldest U.S. society devoted to the advancement of scientific and scholarly inquiry
- Awarded Gruber Genetics Prize (2010)