BS, Biology, Yale University
PhD, Zoology, University of Washington
As a child growing up in rural Vermont, Stowers Investigator Matt Gibson, PhD, developed a passion for exploring the natural world. Years later, these explorations continue in the lab and use sea anemones, corals and fruit flies to elucidate evolutionarily ancient mechanisms of development and tissue regeneration in animals. Building from a solid foundation in the genetic analysis of the fruit fly Drosophila, the Gibson lab has pioneered new experimental paradigms for the sea anemone Nematostella vectensis, providing major new insights in evolutionary and developmental biology. The Gibson Lab now has its sights on a new frontier: the genetic analysis of development and symbiosis in reef-building corals.
“In many ways I’m still driven by a simple desire to discover and understand new things about life,” Gibson explains.
Gibson graduated from Yale University with a BS in biology in 1994. Following short stints working on a fishing boat in Alaska, driving a delivery truck in Vermont, and using his biology background at a patent law firm in New York City, Gibson moved across the country to Seattle for graduate studies at the University of Washington. There, his research efforts investigating development and regeneration in the fruit fly Drosophila resulted in several publications and were recognized with the Harold M. Weintraub Award for Innovative Graduate Research and the Larry Sandler Award for the most outstanding thesis on Drosophila biology. Upon completing his PhD in 2001, Gibson was awarded a Jane Coffin Childs postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School in the lab of the renowned geneticist Norbert Perrimon, PhD. Gibson earned a Burroughs Wellcome Fund career award in 2006, the same year he joined the Stowers Institute. After rising through the ranks, he assumed the role of dean of the Graduate School in 2019.
When he’s not in the lab, Gibson enjoys spending time with his family as well as hiking, fishing, and playing guitar. He frequently unwinds by writing his own songs. “I definitely see parallels between music and science in terms of combining logic and creativity to generate something unexpected, whether it’s a novel idea or a new tune,” he says.
The Gibson Lab uses a broad range of contemporary approaches, from molecular genetics to computational modeling, to investigate the cellular and molecular basis for key events during animal development. Over the last decade the lab has primarily focused on the fruit fly Drosophila and the sea anemone Nematostella vectensis. Currently the lab is developing new approaches to study the biology of corals, close relatives of Nematostella.
As a postdoc, Gibson made significant contributions to cell and developmental biology, including a series of papers elucidating key molecular genetic and mathematical principles of epithelial organization in Drosophila — notably a 2005 paper on cell-to-cell communication that made the cover of Science magazine and a 2006 report in Nature exploring how cell division influences the geometry of epithelia.
After moving to Stowers, Gibson continued to study Drosophila and branched out to investigate development and cell biology in Nematostella, a member of the phylum Cnidaria, which also includes jellyfish and corals. Nematostella have a surprisingly large and complex genome as well as an abundance of epithelial cell types. Over a period of several years, Gibson’s team leveraged their Drosophila expertise to pioneer rigorous new experimental approaches in Nematostella, applying genetic methods to gain functional insights. They were the first lab to successfully use CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing in Nematostella, laying the groundwork for researchers to apply the method in anemones and related cnidarians. The lab has since published numerous influential papers using the Nematostella model system, including a 2017 study in Current Biology elucidating molecular connections between cell division and epithelial architecture and a separate set of breakthrough findings on Hox gene function reported in Science in 2018. That study found that Hox genes, which control the basic body plan in organisms, play an unexpected role in controlling the radially symmetric body plan of Nematostella.
“The key attribute that attracted me to study Nematostella is the potential to make discoveries with profound implications for understanding evolution,” Gibson says. “It’s like taking a time machine back 600 million years and being able to ascertain how ancient biology worked. That’s incredibly powerful on its own, but due to a striking degree of evolutionary conservation, Nematostella also offers the potential for new insights into the functioning of the human genome.”
Switching gears to dedicate a sizeable part of his research to Nematostella, an organism much less studied than other model systems, was a risk Gibson says he felt comfortable taking at Stowers, with the encouragement of Scientific Director Emeritus Robb Krumlauf, PhD. “I think that’s the unique strength of the Stowers Institute – that we can explore completely new research directions all while leveraging the latest technology. That’s essentially why I came to Stowers, to have the freedom to explore new areas together with unparalleled support for basic research,” he says.
Gibson plans to continue studying Nematostella for the foreseeable future while expanding into work on reef-building corals, which are closely related to Nematostella. Corals maintain a fascinating symbiotic relationship with photosynthetic algae that live within their cells and provide their host with nourishment. Corals can therefore flourish and build immense reef structures even in nutrient-poor tropical waters, providing a key ecological niche that accounts for 25% of global marine biodiversity. Rising ocean temperatures caused by climate change disrupt coral-algal symbiosis and are threatening the existence of coral reefs worldwide. Gibson hopes that his lab’s genetic and cell biological expertise will allow fundamentally new ecological and biological insights that may be broadly relevant to other species and ecosystems. He looks forward to where this new line of research will take his lab, and the many unknowns waiting to be discovered.