April 20, 2022

Lehmann named to receive Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science

Renowned developmental geneticist Ruth Lehmann, PhD, is the recipient of the 2022 Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science.


by Bill Snyder

Ruth Lehmann, PhD

Ruth Lehmann, PhD, director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a world-renowned developmental geneticist, is the recipient of the 2022 Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science, officials at Vanderbilt University Medical Center announced this week.

Throughout a career that has spanned four decades, Lehmann has made several key discoveries about the biological origins and “life cycle” of germ cells, which give rise to sperm and eggs, and which, as she has put it, “are absolutely essential for the survival of the species.”

“Dr. Lehmann’s determination to solve the deepest mysteries of life while encouraging others at the beginning of their careers exemplifies the spirit of the Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science,” said Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, President and Chief Executive Officer of VUMC, and Dean of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “I’m honored to congratulate her as the 2022 Vanderbilt Prize recipient.”

Established in 2006, the Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science recognizes women scientists with a stellar record of research accomplishments who also have made significant contributions to mentoring other women in science.

Prize winners receive an honorarium, present a special seminar and mentor a Vanderbilt Prize Scholar, a woman pursuing graduate studies in the biomedical sciences in the School of Medicine. Lehmann’s award presentation and Vanderbilt Prize lecture will be held at VUMC on Sept. 1.

“Dr. Lehmann’s contributions to research and leadership in developmental genetics and cell biology are immeasurable,” said Jennifer Pietenpol, PhD, Benjamin F. Byrd Jr. Professor of Oncology and VUMC’s Chief Scientific and Strategy Officer.

“Advancing fundamental research and the careers of the next generation of scientists are vital for the future of biomedical discovery,” Pietenpol said. “Dr. Lehmann has been a champion for both and is very deserving of the Vanderbilt Prize,”

A member of the National Academy of Science and an alumna of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Lehmann has mentored scores of students and research fellows. At New York University she developed a mentorship program specifically designed to encourage and empower junior faculty in science.

“I’m thrilled to be receiving this honor, recognizing the importance of mentoring and empowering the next generation of scientists,” Lehmann said.

Lehmann was born in Cologne, Germany.

In 1977, her passion for science was kindled while on a Fulbright Fellowship to the University of Washington in Seattle. There her first mentor, the late Gerold Schubiger, PhD, introduced her to the developmental genetics of a classic model organism, the fruit fly Drosophila.

Upon returning to Germany, Lehmann studied the development of the nervous system in Drosophila at the University of Frieberg under the late José Campos-Ortega, PhD.

Later she joined the laboratory of future Nobel laureate Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, PhD, while completing her doctorate in Biology at the University of Tübingen. It was here that Lehmann began working on “maternal-effect” genes that must be transcribed in the mother for the embryo to develop normally.

Lehmann identified multiple genes that, when mutated, result in defects in posterior “patterning,” the generation of patterns of cell differentiation and maturation in the lower part of the embryo that is essential for normal development, and for the establishment of the germline, the future egg and sperm cells.

After earning her PhD, Lehmann spent a year at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England. In 1988, she was invited to join the Whitehead Institute and the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Using molecular cloning techniques, she and her colleagues found that the RNA transcripts of two maternal-effect genes, nanos and oskar, localize to the posterior pole of the embryo, where, after translation into proteins, they direct posterior patterning and germ cell formation.

In 1996, Lehmann moved to New York University, where she served for the next 24 years as endowed professor and chair of the Department of Cell Biology, and as director of the Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine and the Helen L. and Martin S. Kimmel Center for Stem Cell Biology.

Germ cells can’t make egg or sperm on their own; they must migrate through the embryo to the primitive gonads (the future ovaries and testes). Lehmann’s long-term goal is to functionally dissect the entire system, from specification, migration and gonad formation to the transition to germline stem cells.

Her research, using the fruit fly Drosophila, has contributed to the first genetic framework for germ cell fate specification in any organism.

At NYU, Lehmann began to work on the migratory mechanisms that enable germ cells to reach the gonads. Her team showed how the germplasm is structured to attract and organize maternal mRNAs to instruct germ cell fate.

They described how extra-chromosomal genetic information carried in mitochondria is transmitted from the cytoplasm of the egg to the next generation, and how the transmission of mutations in mitochondrial genomes is avoided. This work informed our understanding of genetic mutations that cause human mitochondrial disorders.

Lehmann’s research has highlighted the critical role that RNA regulation plays in germ cells. She has made important contributions to other, related fields including stem cell biology, lipid biology and DNA repair.

In a conversation with the Vilcek Foundation, which awarded her the Vilcek Prize in Biomedical Science last year, Lehmann said that her years at the Skirball Institute got her thinking about “not just how to do science, but also how to lead science … how research can be empowered.”

Some of the young scientists she mentored have become leaders in the biomedical industry and at prestigious academic institutions including Johns Hopkins and Princeton universities, the University of Cambridge and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany.

In 2020, Lehmann returned to the Whitehead Institute as its fifth director, following founding director and Nobel laureate David Baltimore, PhD, Gerald Fink, PhD, the late Susan Lindquist, PhD, who was awarded the Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science in 2014, and most recently, David Page, MD.

Lehmann is a former president of the Society for Developmental Biology and the American Society for Cell Biology.

She is editor of the Annual Review of Cell and Developmental Biology, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the European Molecular Biology Organization and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Her many honors include the Conklin Medal from the Society of Developmental Biology, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the German Society for Developmental Biology, the Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal from the Genetics Society of America, and the Gruber Prize in Generics.

Lehmann, who gave a Discovery Lecture at VUMC in 2019, is the 17th recipient of the Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science. For a complete list of winners, go to the VUMC Office of Research website at www.vumc.org/oor and click on the “Awards” tab.