This Day in Jewish History

1947: Biologist Who Discovered ‘Death Genes’ Through Worm Research Is Born

H. Robert Horvitz won the Nobel Prize following a unique insight that mysteries of human genetics could be elucidated by studying lowly animals.

May 8, 1947, is the birthdate of H. Robert Horvitz, an American-Jewish biologist who shared the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Horvitz, Sydney Brenner and John Sulston, who cooperated on research in the 1970s, were responsible for identifying the operation of so-called “death genes,” which help maintain order in the body but, when they malfunction, can be responsible for the development of cancer, degenerative nerve diseases and susceptibility to diseases such as AIDS.

Almost anything one may want to know about H. Robert Horvitz can be learned from the autobiography he supplied to the Nobel Foundation, and which appears on its website. As opposed to some Nobel laureates, whose official biographies can be skimpy on detail or emotions, Horvitz, in a 17,000-word essay, describes, in generous and often very entertaining detail, his family history going back several generations, and provides a rich account of his childhood and the influences that made him what he is.

He was born Howard Robert Horvitz in Chicago, where he lived his entire childhood. His father, Oscar Freedom Horvitz (he was born just before the armistice that ended World War I, and his parents were obviously feeling optimistic), was an accountant turned businessman, who had been born in nearby Joliet to parents who had both emigrated from eastern Europe.

His mother, the former Mary R. Savit, was also an Illinois native, but both her mother and father had come from Ukraine and Galicia, respectively, with a large part of her mother’s family being murdered in the Holocaust. (His first name, “Howard,” which in time became just the initial H., was meant as a tribute to his maternal great-grandfather, Hersch Bleiweiss, a victim of the Nazis.)

Bob grew up in and around Chicago, and attended Niles East High School, in the suburb of Skokie. He describes himself as precocious and something of a wise guy – with some truly audacious money-making schemes – whose parents were supportive and loving, even when, “at age 15 I had attempted unsuccessfully to drive the family car using a ‘borrowed’ key and knocked down a wall of the garage,” and his dad convinced him it wasn’t necessary to run away from home.

Horvitz attended MIT, where he served as student body president and as managing editor of the student paper. He majored in math and economics, and only in his senior year, 1967-68, did he take an introductory biology course, at a roommate’s urging. That was enough for him to be hooked.

Genetic insights from worms

He attended graduate school across town at Harvard, earning his Ph.D. in 1974. Four of his doctoral advisers, who included James Watson of double-helix fame, also went on to become Nobel Prize winners.

During his graduate-studies years, Horvitz worked with phages, a type of virus, but the research that won him the Nobel Prize, into the process called “apoptosis” (self-destruction of cells) was conducted with C. elegans roundworms. In both cases he was operating under the belief, by no means widely held at the time, that studying relatively unsophisticated, non-mammalian life forms could reveal genetic insights that would also be applicable to human beings.

His intuition was correct. In a brief online lecture for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, where he is today a research scientist, Horvitz describes receiving a fax in 1992 from a lab assistant who had been involved in studying the gene in roundworms that causes cells to self-destruct, an essential operation to rid the body of unnecessary cells and make room for the approximately trillion new cells it creates daily. The assistant had looked to see if any human gene had a similar molecular makeup to the worm’s cell-death gene, and to everyone’s surprise found a near-match in a human cancer gene that was “protect[ing] cells from programmed cell death.”

The implications of this discovery for human disease research at the genetic level were profound, and served as the basis of the award of the Nobel Prize..

Today, Horvitz, in addition to his position at the Hughes Institute, is a professor at MIT, where both he and his wife, neuroscientist Martha Constantine-Paton, work at the McGovern Institute Brain Research.