Prof. Bob Horvitz is the David H. Koch Professor of Biology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator in the Department of Biology and McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. His pioneering studies have made him one of the central figures in research on programmed cell death ("apoptosis"}. In this work he discovered key genes that control cell death in C. elegans, a tiny transparent worm made up of fewer than 1,000 cells; which provides a simple, yet powerful model for cell biology and development.
Dr. Horvitz did his undergraduate work at MIT where he double majored in mathematics and economics, graduating in 1968. He then switched areas and went to Harvard to study biology. He first worked with Jim Watson, well known for his participation in discovering the double-helical structure of DNA and later with Wally Gilbert, an inventor of one of the first DNA sequencing methods. After receiving a Ph.D. in Biology in 1974, he went to the Medical Research Council Lab of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, to study neurobiology. There Horvitz teamed with others in Sydney Brenner's lab to trace the fate of each cell in C. elegans as it developed from an embryo into an adult., They found that cell division in the worm produced many more · cells than survived to make up the mature animal, suggesting that a systematic process might be killing the unneeded cells. In the mid-1980's as a biology professor at MIT, Horvitz identified the first "cell death" genes. As he has explained, "Discovering that programmed cell death is specified by particular genes established that programmed cell death is a basic biological process, much like cell division, cell migration, and cell differentiation." This work has already made an important impact in medicine as well as in basic science.
For his work on apoptosis and for his studies of organ development in C. elegans, Horvitz shared the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology of Medicine with Sydney Brenner and John Sulston. He has received many, many other awards including the Genetics Society of America Medal, the American Cancer Society Medal of Honor, the Charles Leopold Mayer Prize of the French Academy of Sciences, and recently, last year, the Mendel Medal of the UK Genetics Society and the Eli Lilly Lecturer Award.