Member, Whitehead Institute

Gerald R. Fink

Image
Gerry Fink stands smiling, one hand in his pocket.

455 Main Street
Cambridge, MA 02142
United States

617.258.5214
bmdobson@wi.mit.edu

Achievements & Honors

Pioneered field of yeast molecular biology
Introduced Arabidopsis thaliana as a model organism
Developed a method for genetically engineering salt- and drought-tolerant plants
Emil Christian Hansen Prize in Microbiology (1986)
President Genetics Society of America (1988)
National Academy of Sciences Award in Molecular Biology (1981)
Awarded 2001 George W. Beadle Medal of the Genetics Society of America (2001)
Received first honorary doctorate awarded by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Elected to American Philosophical Society (2003)
Awarded Gruber International Genetics Prize (2010)
President, American Association for the Advancement of Science (2014-17)
MIT James R. Killian Jr. Faculty Achievement Award (2018-2019)
Awarded the T. H. Morgan Medal of the Genetics Society of America (2020)

Affiliations

Founding Member, Whitehead Institute
Professor of Genetics, MIT
American Cancer Society Professor

Question

What are the biological processes and pathways underlying fungal biology and how do they contribute to their role as pathogens? 

Approach

Whitehead Institute Founding Member Gerry Fink's creative use of  genetics, biochemistry, and molecular biology has yielded fundamental discoveries in biology. His lab has pioneered a better understanding of gene regulation, mutation, and recombination in all organisms. Fink's seminal contributions to the field include his development of a technique for "transforming" yeast that allowed researchers to introduce a foreign piece of DNA into yeast cells and control  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 discovered that when yeast is deprived of nutrients such as nitrogen, it can change its cell growth patterns to branch off in long, invasive filaments. This switch allows yeast cells to search for nutrients in their surroundings and penetrate tissue. This discovery uncovered a mechanism by which disease-causing fungi switch to an infectious form and invade human tissues. The analysis of this switch provided the scientific basis for the search for new antibiotics. Using genetics, biochemistry and genomics, Fink has answered questions such as:  What makes Candida albicans such a successful pathogen?  How do fungal pathogens evolve antibiotic resistance? How do they manage to change their form and morphology so rapidly? 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; and he uncovered mutants that enable plants to be grown in water as salty as seawater. In 2003, Fink chaired the National Research Council committee that created the influential report “Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism: Confronting the Dual Use Dilemma,” which provided the nation with critical guidance on how to deal with the threat of bioterrorism without jeopardizing scientific progress.

Bio 

Fink earned his bachelor's degree from Amherst College in 1962 and received his PhD degree in genetics from Yale University in 1965. He also 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. 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.

Selected publications

G Guy Bushkin, David Pincus, Jeffrey T Morgan, Kris Richardson, Caroline Lewis, Sze Ham Chan, David P Bartel, Gerald R Fink
G Guy Bushkin, David Pincus, Jeffrey T Morgan, Kris Richardson, Caroline Lewis, Sze Ham Chan, David P Bartel, Gerald R Fink
Valmik K Vyas, G Guy Bushkin, Douglas A Bernstein, Matthew A Getz, Magdalena Sewastianik, M Inmaculada Barrasa, David P Bartel, Gerald R Fink