Walter Jakob Gehring (1939-2014)
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Walter Jakob Gehring discovered the homeobox, a DNA segment found in a specific cluster of genes that determine the body plan of animals, plants, and fungi. Gehring identified the homeobox in 1983, with the help of colleagues while isolating the Antennapedia (Antp) gene in fruit flies (Drosophila) at the University of Basel in Basel, Switzerland. Hox genes, a family of genes that have the homeobox, determine the head-to-tail (anterior-posterior) body axis of both vertebrates and invertebrates. Gehring also identified the homeobox-containing Pax-6 gene as the master control gene in eye development of Drosophila, the same gene that, when mutated or absent in humans, leads to aniridia, or lack of the iris, in humans. Gehring's work with the homeobox suggested to biologists that widely different species share a similar and evolutionarily conserved genetic pathway that controls the development of overall body plans, from fruit flies to humans.