BE, Chemical engineering,Vanderbilt University
PhD, Developmental Biology, Ohio State University
Today Robb Krumlauf, PhD, is a world-renowned developmental biologist, noted for his seminal work on Hox genes – a family of genes that control how animal body plans develop. But surprisingly, he didn’t take his first biology class until after he graduated from college and was working full-time as an engineer.
Krumlauf explains that growing up during the space race of the 1950s, he, like many of his peers who excelled in science, was encouraged to take course loads heavy in math and the physical sciences. His first real exposure to the life sciences was during his first job as a chemical engineer. He was tasked to create a drug delivery system, requiring him to learn biology in continuing education classes.
“My mind likes to think about how things work, mechanisms, and wiring. And when I started taking these courses, I realized that there were tools that could help us understand the complexity of how single cells become a multicellular organism, how molecular and cellular processes work, and how shape, form, and function were regulated,” Krumlauf says. “I felt like an engineering level of understanding could be brought to biology, and that was incredibly exciting to me.”
After five years in the workforce, Krumlauf left his job to earn a PhD in developmental biology at Ohio State University. Following postdoctoral training in Glasgow and Philadelphia in 1985, he began his independent career at the National Institute for Medical Research in London, now the Francis Crick Institute. During his last decade there he served as head of the division of developmental neurobiology. In 2000, Krumlauf joined the Stowers Institute as its founding scientific director and was the first faculty member to establish a lab. Throughout his career he has provided mentorship to countless students and postdocs and many former trainees are successful group leaders at institutes and universities around the world.
Helping build the Stowers Institute into a world-class medical research program, by recruiting the best minds in science and giving them the support and freedom to pursue creative research, has been a career highlight for Krumlauf.
“When you help create an environment, there could be no greater reward than being allowed to work in that environment, enjoy stimulating colleagues and scientific excellence,” Krumlauf says. “To be able to drive your program forward…for me, it’s been wonderful.”
In 2019, Krumlauf stepped down from his role as scientific director to devote his time to his lab’s research. Krumlauf is happy to be back at the bench full time. “I love the joy of discovery,” he says. Outside of science, Krumlauf enjoys theater, art, cooking, hiking, working out, and canal boating.
The Krumlauf Lab is interested in how the body forms in vertebrate animals, and the regulatory information and mechanisms that control the basic body plan in development, disease, and evolution.
In particular, the lab focuses on head development and Hox genes—a family of genes that control the layout of a developing embryo from head to tail. The field offers insight into not only how bodies are shaped and formed, but also how species evolved new features. Fundamental discoveries in model systems hold promise for understanding human health and disease.
Krumlauf was among the first to insert genes into the mouse genome to create transgenic mice that mimic human development. He is also known for co-discovering collinearity of mammalian Hox genes, a phenomenon in which the order of these genes on the chromosome matches the order they’re expressed from head to tail along the embryo. His discovery that Hox genes, which control formation of the basic body plan, are essentially the same in mice and fruit flies (Drosophila) helped establish the idea that there is a common genetic tool kit and that all organisms have surprisingly similar numbers of genes. His comparative studies in mouse, chick, and zebrafish, and more recently sea lamprey, continue to provide critical information on how different species use the same genetic toolkit to form diverse structures.
Pioneering research from Krumlauf’s lab in the early 2000s also helped lay the groundwork for a new approach to treating osteoporosis — an often-debilitating disease that affects millions of people worldwide. The researchers uncovered a mechanism that controls bone growth, which arose out of their basic research into Hox genes. The drug, known as romosozumab, was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in January 2019, and is the first drug for osteoporosis that promotes bone growth.
“It’s an example of how making a fundamental discovery may not take you exactly in the direction you intend, but may unexpectedly make key contributions to our understanding of an important aspect of biology with great potential for improving human health,” Krumlauf says.
Today, Krumlauf’s lab continues to study the molecular and cellular pathways that govern the patterning of the nervous system, the establishment of the basic body plan, and craniofacial development of vertebrate embryos, particularly how these processes are altered or affected in human diseases. He says his team is getting closer to understanding the complex circuitry that controls the basic body plan.
Edwin G. Conklin Medal, Society for Developmental Biology
Member, National Academy of Sciences
President, Society for Developmental Biology
Fellow, American Association for Advancement of Science
Member, American Academy of Arts and Science
Fellow, Academy of Medical Sciences, United Kingdom
Secretary, European Developmental Biology Organisation
Editor & Editor-in-Chief, Developmental Biology
Member, European Molecular Biology Organisation