2018 George Streisinger Award - Monte Westerfield
The Streisinger award was established by the IZFS in honor of George Streisinger (1927-1984), the founding father of zebrafish research. The award is given to honor a senior zebrafish researcher for exceptional and continuous contributions to the zebrafish field. This year’s recipient is Monte Westerfield, who was inspired by George Streisinger to switch to the zebrafish model early in his career.
Corinne Houart gave an enthusiastic introduction of Monte, highlighting his strengths, both professional and personal, which make him an exceptional mentor, colleague, and scientist.
She told us how Monte grew up in Iowa and was a high school football star. He went to Princeton for College, on a football scholarship, where he studied Physics and Biology. He conducted graduate studies at Duke University with John Moore, and performed his postdoctoral work at Harvard Medical School with Eric Franck. Monte moved from the East coast to Eugene in late 1981 to start his own lab on neurobiology of the motor system in Xenopus.
Inspired by George Streisinger’s development of zebrafish genetics, Monte began using the zebrafish in his own studies. Judith Eisen was his first postdoc, arriving at the very beginning of 1983. They teamed up with Chuck Kimmel’s group where they were doing the first fluorescent lineage labelling in zebrafish, techniques that Monte and Judith had a lot of experience with. Corinne related that they worked in small teams around the clock, observing cells on what by today’s standards would be miniscule monitors using low light level cameras mounted on a microscope. Sitting in a dark room illuminated only by instrument lights, and drawing whatever important was happening using colored sharpies on acetate sheets taped to the face of the monitor, because of course all the fancy cameras and recording devices we are used to today weren’t invented yet. Corinne states, “The first time they saw a motor neuron axon extend across the screen, they realized how they could do their experiments. It was completely mind-blowing, no one had ever seen it before in a vertebrate.”
This was the start of a very varied research career. Monte was welcoming to his team and to any excellent scientist with an interesting idea, giving them the means to develop their own niche. His lab’s contributions cover neuronal maturation, neural, somite, and sensory organ development, but also technology development, especially transgenesis, where this technique allowed his lab to make important contributions on the role of Hox and Dlx gene families. His current research endeavours are focussing on Usher syndrome, a human genetic condition he has personal interest in.
While achieving a very rich research career, Monte also devoted his time to developing web-based tools for the community, identifying what was needed for zebrafish research to flourish before the researchers realised it was needed. Monte established ZFIN, obtained the funding to maintain it, and still leads and manages the team building and updating it. Not content with ZFIN, Monte also realised the need for our research to be accessible and “translatable” across animal models and is spending substantial effort in developing and improving gene ontology annotations and developing GO resources. Finally, he is now actively involved in imposing the zebrafish as a model to identify genes involved in rare diseases.
Monte graciously accepted the award, then followed with an obviously passionate presentation on the basis of Usher syndrome, the current state of progress in the field and the benefits of zebrafish models of the disease over mice. Notable findings included evidence that bright light can accelerate vision loss in their model of the disease, suggesting that Usher syndrome patients should take extra precautions to protect their eyes from light exposure.
Contributions to this piece came from Corinne Houart and Kevin Lanham