Lessons from the Laureates
words by Mary Ann Littell photograph by Pete Byron
’ve been fortunate to have worked wih great scientists, but it’s only partly luck,” he says. “Succeeding in science or anything else takes a little bit of luck, but also talent and hard work.” Luck helped start his career in the early 1980s. His application to study nematodes with Sydney Brenner in England had been lost, when Peter Lawrence (a famous geneticist) found it in the pathology department of a hospital, called him long-distance, and put it into the right hands. Ron Ellis’s new mentors in Cambridge later went on to win the Nobel Prize. They also inspired him to seek out the best scientists in the world to learn more about the nematode, or roundworm.
Ellis’s research group at UMDNJ-School of Osteopathic Medicine (SOM), where he is an associate professor of molecular biology, recently demonstrated that two small genetic changes in the nematode could cause the female of one species to become a self-fertile hermaphrodite. The study was published this past fall in the journal Science.
“It’s fascinating that some animals are self-fertile hermaphrodites, capable of having offspring without a mate,” he says. “We’ve been examining how that trait could have evolved. We were able to genetically manipulate female nematodes to turn them into self-fertile hermaphrodites.” He adds that the study offers new insights into how evolutionary changes could have occurred: “Understanding how these processes are controlled could revolutionize our ability to treat reproductive disorders and infertility in humans.”
A long-time interest in science set Ellis on his current path. “In elementary school I had a chemistry set in my basement,” he recalls. “My friends and I did many experiments. I use the word ‘experiments’ loosely. Actually, they were unguided forays into heating things up and watching what happens.”
As an undergraduate at Michigan State, he initially pursued physics, but then decided he wanted a more interactive science. In his junior year, he changed his major to microbiology and biochemistry, after taking a course in microbial genetics. “I was hooked. It felt effortless but exciting.”
In 1983, Ellis received the award that would change his life. It was the Churchill Scholarship, given annually to a select group of American students with exceptional ability in engineering, math or science. This prize gave the aspiring scientist the opportunity for a year’s study in a laboratory in Cambridge, England.
“You had to select a lab you wanted to work in,” explains Ellis. “But having just changed my major, I didn’t know very much about labs in England. So I asked my advisors. They recommended I try for Sydney Brenner’s group. He was working on the nematode.”
Brenner’s lab accepted Ellis, and he spent a year in Cambridge with a group that was making scientific history. He worked with some outstanding scientists, including John Sulston, who had just finished deciphering the entire developmental history of the nematode and was beginning the project of cloning and eventually sequencing the entire genome. “This was the first animal genome to be sequenced,” he explains. “Sulston worked with another outstanding scientist, Alan Coulson, whose specialty was DNA sequencing. I learned it from him. They were great mentors, and I’ve never stopped studying this animal.
“These experiences changed the direction of my research career.”
Following his year in Cambridge, Ellis returned to the U.S. and entered a PhD program at MIT, choosing another mentor — a dynamic young professor named Bob Horvitz, who had also been part of the Cambridge group. At MIT, Ellis continued studying the nematode, but went in a different direction. “With John Sulston, I had been part of the first group to clone all of the nematode DNA,” he explains. “With Bob Horvitz, I began to work on a process called apoptosis, or programmed cell death. We did genetic analysis, finding and studying mutants where cells failed to die, crossing mutants with each other and seeing how their children develop, things like that.”
He continued his work on nematodes as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin under the direction of Judith Kimble, PhD, another alumnus of the Cambridge program. She is renowned for her work on the reproductive system, and inspired him to think about how hermaphrodites first evolved.
In 2002, Ellis’s first three mentors — Horvitz, Sulston and Brenner — shared the Nobel Prize for discovering and characterizing the genes controlling apoptosis, or cell death, in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. “There was a wonderful celebration in Stockholm when the award was presented. Bob Horvitz paid for tickets to Sweden for me and four other graduate students who had been part of this group. It was a thrill to be there,” he says.
Over the years, Ellis has gotten to know the nematode very well indeed. He describes them as “near-perfect research subjects. They’re simple creatures that develop quickly — from egg to adult in only three days. So you can do experiments on them without having to wait very long for them to grow up. Also, because they’re self-fertile hermaphrodites they can have progeny without having to mate. If you have a hermaphrodite, just leave it alone and there will be lots of babies in two days. This makes them very interesting.”
When he’s not in the lab, Ellis spends his workdays in the classroom. He teaches courses in genetics and molecular and developmental biology to students at SOM and UMDNJ’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. And when he’s not working, he’s being dad to his five children, who range in age from 10 to 21. Coordinating his professional and family activities is sometimes a juggling act, but Ellis finds time to do it all, including coaching Little League baseball for a few years. “I do a lot of driving, making sure everyone is in the right place at the right time,” he says. “It’s ok though. I’ve found that a lot of parenting is done in the car.” His children are also involved in professional theater, where they’ve appeared in a variety of plays, including recent productions of Peter Pan at the Broadway Theater in Pitman and the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia.
The scientist credits SOM for creating a family-friendly workplace. “It’s a great place to work,” says Ellis. “Its relatively small size makes it easy to get things done. Most important, time for research is protected, to keep the focus on good science."