Krumlauf Lab

Robb Krumlauf, Ph.D.

Investigator; Scientific Director Emeritus

Professor, Department of Anatomy & Cell Biology
The University of Kansas School of Medicine

Professor, Neurosciences Graduate Program
University of Kansas

Professor, Department of Oral Biology
University of Missouri at Kansas City Dental School

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If you think there are people-oriented careers, and then there is science, you haven’t met Robb Krumlauf. Whether he is recounting his pioneering studies of genes regulating the vertebrate body plan or envisioning Stowers’ role in the future of biomedical research, one word dominates Krumlauf’s conversation—collegiality.

Mice with HoxB Bacterial Artificial Chromosomes containing multiplex fluorescent protein reporters (top) allow the visualization of Hox expression in mouse hindbrain segments via multispectral imaging. Image: Dr. Robb Krumlauf

“I enjoy the process of discovery,” says Krumlauf, who is Investigator and Scientific Director Emeritus at Stowers. “That satisfaction is personal at some level, but I really enjoy sharing success in a group as much as individually.”
In the molecular revolution he has been on the forefront of two fields—mouse genetics and developmental biology—which is remarkable, because Krumlauf, who earned a B.E. in chemical engineering from Vanderbilt University in 1970, never took an upper division biology class until he held his first job as Chief Chemical Engineer at Stokely Van Camp. His work involved the creation of drug delivery systems, requiring him to learn biology in continuing education classes.
Five years into the job he left to devote himself to earning a Ph.D. (1979) in Developmental Biology at Ohio State University and by the mid-80’s had completed two postdocs, one at Beatson Institute for Cancer Research in Glasgow, Scotland, and a second at Fox Chase Institute for Cancer Research in Philadelphia, where he studied with mouse geneticist Shirley Tilghman.
Few mentors influenced Krumlauf as profoundly as Tilghman, president emerita of Princeton. In her lab, Krumlauf did research on what were then emerging techniques of inserting genes into the mouse germline, a breakthrough in creation of “transgenic” mice useful to answer fundamental biological questions. But what he recalls vividly are Tilghman’s people skills.
“We worked 24/7 like demons in Shirley’s lab but she made it fun because she cared about us as people,” says Krumlauf, observing that occasionally investigators overlook less “accomplished” members of a lab.  “Shirley knew that not everybody will run a lab but made people aware of their strengths and helped them find career options. People left her lab feeling good about themselves.”
Although tempted by offers from Institutions needing a mouse geneticist, for his first faculty job Krumlauf opted to immerse himself in embryology at one of that field’s epicenters, England’s National Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) in the Mill Hill region of London.
There, between 1985 and 2000 he conducted research on expression and function of DNA-binding proteins encoded by Hox genes in a part of the brainstem called the hindbrain, which controls automatic functions like breathing or blood pressure. Krumlauf’s group showed that expression of Hox genes along anterior to posterior regions or “segments” of the hindbrain not only dictated that region’s function but remarkably corresponded to the sequential alignment of Hox genes clustered along a particular mouse chromosome, a phenomenon initially observed in fruit flies. These studies were among the first to show that genes defining position along the body axis were conserved structurally and functionally in the genomes of vertebrates and insects.   
Krumlauf attributes his Mill Hill productivity in part to his colleagues—including department heads Brigid Hogan and Peter Rigby, and junior faculty Andy McMahon, Robin Lovell-Badge, David Wilkinson, Jim Smith, and Rosa Beddington, among others—a who’s who of preeminent embryologists and developmental biologists.“For developmental biologists, it was like the heyday of atomic physics,” says Krumlauf. “Suddenly you realized how the universe works!”
Initially, Krumlauf had planned to stay only briefly in the UK, but the mix of competitiveness and collegiality kept him at Mill Hill for 16 years. During his last decade there he served as Head of the Division of Developmental Neurobiology. When he first heard about the kind of biomedical science envisioned at the then embryonic Stowers Institute in the late 90’s, he was at first uninterested, but soon reconsidered. “I felt like there was a real need for a model like the Max Planck, Pasteur or Mill Hill—American style,” says Krumlauf, who became the first senior faculty member to set up shop when the institute opened in 2000.  
Krumlauf’s work here has mirrored ideas that have come full circle since his career began. The discoveries of developmental biologists in the 80’s and 90’s were primarily of commonality. “Back then, I didn’t believe that genes that Drosophila geneticists were discovering would have common roles in mice,” says Krumlauf. “But soon we went from thinking that all organisms are different to surprise at discovering unifying principles. Now we are returning to a search for the origin of all the diversity.”

The mammalian hindbrain is divided into segments (left panel). Corresponding segmental patterns of Hox expression (right panel) can be detected using multispectral imaging and fluorescent protein reporter mice. Image: Dr. Robb Krumlauf

In that pursuit, Krumlauf has at Stowers made evolutionary comparisons of how Hox genes are regulated across species as diverse as mice, chicks and fish to understand both similarities and differences in mechanisms that switch on specific Hox genes and control their function in a species-specific manner.
He is also excited about understanding how different species deploy their highly similar molecular toolkits to form diverse structures, such as unique facial features. This interest has resulted in recent studies of a factor called Wise that regulates patterns of vertebrate tooth, bone and mammary development. He finds it rewarding that his studies on Wise have also opened new possibilities for treating human bone density disorders, such as osteoporosis.
In what he calls his “volunteer time,” Krumlauf serves as Editor and Editor-In-Chief of the journal Developmental Biology, is on the Editorial Board of many peer-reviewed journals and serves on review panels for many external funding organizations, including the NIH, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and The Wellcome Trust.