BALTIMORE – Tucked into a small wooded stretch just behind the Johns Hopkins University campus, about 100 scientists – and millions of flies, frogs, mice and worms – are quietly changing the face of medicine.
The Carnegie Institution Department of Embryology, the most isolated of the institution’s six research branches, bred this year’s Nobel Prize winner for Physiology/Medicine; a winner of the 2006 Lasker Prize–known as the “American Nobel” — as well as thousands of other discoveries in its 93-year history.
Embryology is located on the back loop of a small winding road that borders the back of the Johns Hopkins’ Homewood campus, and lives in the shadows of the renowned Hopkins medical complex in East Baltimore and its formidable public relations machine. Few Marylanders know it exists apart from the occasional newspaper headline.
“Despite all of the things that it has contributed to science over the last hundred years, you know, it’s just small,” said Allan C. Spradling, director of the Embryology department. “It doesn’t have a football team. People don’t think about it like they know the universities.”
Embryology is in Baltimore, rather than in Washington, D.C. or Stanford, California like the other four research branches, because of its one-time affiliation with the Johns Hopkins anatomy department, said Carnegie Institution public relations officer Tina McDowell.
The small department, though just moved into a spacious new building after 40 years over a parking garage, has an unintentional aversion to publicity. For instance, on the hundredth anniversary of the Carnegie Institute, the writer who was supposed to pen the volume on the Department of Embryology was killed in a car accident just before the book project began. The institution had to hire outside historians unfamiliar with the workings of the lab to complete the job.
The department’s relative obscurity, though, makes the discoveries that emerge from its labs all the more thrilling.
This is Dr. Joseph Gall, the Lasker Prize winner, explaining the microscopic parts of living cells he is currently studying:
“It’s sort of like Detroit. Detroit makes cars, but you drive them all over the place.”
Gall, a laboratory director at the Department of Embryology, has been hard at work for the past 10 years trying to figure out the function of a small node buried in the middle of a cell, which he is fairly sure helps create the building blocks of the protein “messengers” that tell cells how to behave. Gall says the tiny part, named the “Cajal body” for Spanish researcher Ramon y Cajal, much like Detroit, sends out “cars” to help run the rest of the cell.
The 23-year Carnegie veteran’s eyes twinkle and his normally soft voice grows louder as he explains how analyzing frog eggs helped him reach those conclusions.
That unquenchable interest and passion is what department director Spradling looks for in every person he employs.
“…Our philosophy,” Spradling wrote in the final chapter of Embryology’s volume in the centennial book series, “is to recognize individuals with a glint in their eye, to trust their judgment, and not listen too closely to the details.”
That philosophy, Spradling said, is precisely why Andrew Z. Fire, who won this year’s Nobel Prize, did the research that netted him the award in Carnegie’s Embryology labs.
The atmosphere within the center’s six labs is as relaxed and breezy as the building design, with lab doors open and researchers in jeans and sweatshirts greeting one another as they pass. Nearly every office boasts a panoramic view of the trees and all the laboratories have skylights installed above sloping white ceilings for maximum natural light.
The staff fills the coffee maker from an old plastic beaker; a black and white sign on a lab door reads “Beware of Attack Fly.”
“Nobody’s breathing down your neck saying you’re not producing enough,” said Judith Yanowitz, who did post-doctoral research under Fire and is now an associate faculty member at the institution.
Yanowitz said other scientists at more results-oriented centers might have dismissed the unusual results Fire found while working with cells that were programmed by their genetic content to become muscle cells.
He noticed that certain molecules are used to “turn on” or “turn off” traits that are coded in a cell’s genetics, and that by selectively choosing or removing them, they can cause cells to behave differently.
Yanowitz has gone on to study the effects on worms called Caenorhabditis elegans, tiny crawlers with transparent insides that barely register to the naked eye.
Spradling said critics ask what effect fiddling around with fruit flies or worms for a decade or more has on the lives of real people.
“They want especially for you to prove this it’s related to some disease,” said Spradling. “But almost no really important discoveries could have been shown to be related to a disease at the time.”
Even flies, worms, and mice have as much as 75 percent genetic code in common with humanity.
Hence the bottles of red-brown flies lining the shelves of his lab, twitching colonies of moving specks feeding from a compound of molasses, cornstarch and yeast in the bottom of the flask.
Corporate researchers are moving away from the basic tenet of science, Spradling said, which is starting out with an unknown and working toward it by testing theories. The scientific method depends as much on failure and the unexpected as on success to reach meaningful conclusions, he said.
One of the reasons Spradling says the institution has been productive for so long is that supervisors let go of their researchers’ reins and allow them the trial and error that produces useful knowledge.
If Andrew Fire had been told that his institution was cutting funding when he came up with abnormal results in the muscle cell groups instead of allowing the experiment to run its course, he may well not be holding the Nobel Prize now.
Gall, Yanowitz and Spradling all said that the Department of Embryology would not be nearly as successful without its unique sense of community.
All equipment, such as microscopes and portable centrifuges, is stored in a common area, where all faculty and graduate students must go to pick up the equipment they need. Not only does it save money if each lab does not need to be equipped with every instrument, but it forces researchers to interact with one another.
Once a month, researchers in each lab make presentations on their work to the rest of the lab. Once a year, they present their work to the entire staff.
Everyone knows what the other labs are doing, and it helps them collaborate when a problem arises.
“Our ability to see different parts of the problem comes from our ability to see different aspects,” said Yanowitz.