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Asa Gray

History of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology and its ancestors. . .

Over the past century, biology has developed from a science largely based on observation and empirical work to one based on the fundamental principles of genetics and evolution. The discovery of the structure of DNA and the subsequent decoding of entire genomes provided the foundation for a modern biological understanding of life processes. Technological advances have enabled biologists to make precise measurements of the state and activity of biological agents and to generate massive datasets that catalog not only the entire genetic blueprint of an organism (its genome), but also which genes are transcribed into molecular messages at a given place and time (transcriptome), the proteins that are produced (proteome), and the set of small molecules that support metabolism (metabolome). Genomic data and computational power have led to advances in untangling complex regulatory and evolutionary pathways that will allow us to understand the mechanisms driving the generation and maintenance of the diversity of life on earth.

Learn how the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology (MCDB) evolved from the beginnings in the first faculty member hired after the University committed to move to Ann Arbor: Asa Gray, Professor of Botany and Zoology.


The Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology (MCDB) and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) were established in 2001. Both departments are descendants of the Departments of Botany and Zoology. Because the first faculty member hired after the University committed to move to Ann Arbor was Asa Gray, Professor of Botany and Zoology, MCDB and EEB have the oldest pedigree of any departments at the University. Professor Gray was appointed on July 17, 1837, traveled in Europe for the next year purchasing the books that established the University Library, and traveled to Ann Arbor in 1838 to consult on plans for the campus. However, construction moved slowly and in 1842 he resigned his professorship to take a position at Harvard without ever teaching a class in Ann Arbor. Gray went on to become one of the most distinguished botanists in the world.

Over the next 100 years, Botany and Zoology at Michigan both became internationally distinguished departments, and had clearly distinct missions focused on plants and animals, respectively. The history of these units up to about 1970 is described in the histories of those departments, so most aspects will not be repeated here. 

By the 1950s advances in physiology, genetics, cell biology and biochemistry as well as in ecology and evolutionary biology had begun to make clear that many issues in the life sciences were best approached within an intellectual framework that focused on mechanisms common to many different types of organisms, rather than on a particular taxonomic group.

Between 1950 and 1970 the Chairs of Botany (Kenneth Jones 1950-63, Alfred Sussman 1963-68, Erich Steiner 1968-71) and the Chairs of Zoology (Dugald Brown 1949-65, John Allen 1965-71) led extensive hiring efforts to bring to the University faculty members working in research areas that did not fit neatly into either department. Individuals hired during this period in the Botany Department included Charles Yocum, who achieved recognition for biochemical and biophysical studies of photosynthesis; Robert Helling, who carried out some of the earliest experiments indicating that it was possible to use restriction enzymes to make plasmids expressing recombinant DNA; Julian Adams, who received recognition for studies of the molecular mechanism of bacterial evolution; and George Jones, who was known for studies of bacterial gene regulation. Professors Yocum and Adams later became Biology Department Chairs at Michigan, while Professor Jones became Dean of Graduate Studies at Emory University. Faculty with broad interests hired in the Zoology Department included endocrinologist Billy Frye, who later became Dean of LSA and then Provost of the University; and Bruce Oakley and Stephen Easter, who became international leaders in sensory neurobiology.

At the same time, traditional areas of strength in the evolutionary aspects of plant and animal taxonomy were maintained. Two faculty members hired during this era were eventually elected to the National Academy of Sciences: Botanist Warren Wagner was recognized for his pioneering contributions to the development of a rational way of inferring phylogeny from the characteristics of extant species (and is well known for studies of ferns), and zoologist Richard Alexander was recognized for his studies on the evolution of animal behavior, especially social insects.
As a consequence of hiring during the 1960s, significant overlap developed in the research and educational missions of the two departments. During the terms of Botany Chair Charles Beck (1971-74) and Zoology Chair Carl Gans (1971-74) this led to extensive and sometimes heated discussions about the proper organization of the life sciences within the College of LSA. With firm guidance from the LSA Dean’s office, the resolution of this discussion was the amalgamation of the two units into the Division of Biological Sciences, which was approved by the Regents in June 1975.

Division of Biological Sciences: 1975-1986

The first Chair of the Division of Biological Sciences was William Dawson (1975-82), a very prominent comparative animal physiologist. The Division Chair and Executive Committee handled core functions such as budgeting, faculty hiring, and promotion. The Division also managed the courses required during the first two undergraduate years. However, for the purpose of planning upper level undergraduate courses and organizing the graduate programs, there were four subdivisions. Two retained the old department names (Departments of Botany and Zoology) and became the intellectual homes for many faculty members housed in the Herbarium or the Museum of Zoology.  The other two, the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology (CMB) and the Department of Ecology, Evolutionary and Organismal Biology (EEOB), became the intellectual homes for many of the faculty members hired during the previous 10 years, including most of the individuals housed in the E.H. Kraus (Natural Sciences) Building.

During the first few years of the Division of Biological Sciences, two prominent senior faculty recruits were made. William Hamilton, probably the most prominent evolutionary theorist of his generation, joined the faculty as Professor of Evolutionary Biology in 1978, but in 1984 he was recruited back to his native United Kingdom to accept a position at Oxford. In 1980, Wesley Brown joined the faculty as a visiting associate professor, and he became a tenured faculty member in 1983. Professor Brown was a pioneer in using molecular methods based on mitochondrial DNA and protein sequence comparisons to infer phylogenetic relationships.

Michael Martin, an expert in the chemical biology of insects, served as Chair from 1982-85. In a single year (1983) he hired four future departmental chairs: he moved Wesley Brown onto the tenure track; he also hired plant ecologist Deborah Goldberg, Elzada U. Clover Collegiate Professor and a future Chair of EEB; neurophysiologist Richard Hume, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and a future Chair of MCDB; and developmental neurobiologist Kathryn Tosney, who after leaving Michigan in 2005 became Chair of Biology at the University of Miami, Florida.


Department of Biology: 1986-2001

Charles Yocum, the Alfred S. Sussman Distinguished University Professor, became Chair of the Division of Biological Sciences in 1985. Most of the major business of the unit was being handled at the level of the Division, so in 1986 the four superfluous Departments were abolished, and the unit name changed to the Department of Biology. Professor Yocum continued to serve as Chair until 1991. The graduate program was divided into two tracks, MCDB and EEB, which foreshadowed the eventual separation into two departments.

During the next 10 years, the Department of Biology built critical masses in emerging areas by clustering several hires over a few years in the same areas. On the MCDB side, hiring was focused on plant molecular biology and neurobiology. Plant biologist Eran Pichersky, the Michael M. Martin Collegiate Professor of MCDB, developed a world-renowned research program on secondary compounds required for scent or color production, and John Schiefelbein gained equal recognition for his studies of root development in Arabidopsis. Neurobiologist John Kuwada was a pioneer in of the use of zebrafish as a model system to study axon guidance in vivo, and Rolf Bodmer gained recognition for studies of the transcription factors that control neuronal and muscle differentiation. Wesley Brown succeeded Charles Yocum as Chair of the Department of Biology (1991-96) and continued to focus hiring in the same areas. Joining the faculty in MCDB-related areas were plant cell biologist Laura Olsen, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, neuroendocrinologist Robert Denver, and plant developmental biologist Steven Clark. Bacterial cell biologist Janine Maddock was recruited. George Jones left for Emory University.

As a consequence of the rapid development of extremely successful research programs by the recently hired neurobiologists, Bruce Oakley was able to obtain an NSF training grant in developmental neurobiology, which provided a large number of traineeships for postdoctoral fellows, PhD students, and undergraduates. The renewal of this training grant in 1996 provided the seed funding for an award-winning neuroscience lab course developed by Richard Hume that eventually helped catalyze the development of a very successful undergraduate neuroscience major in the 2000s. This course elaborated on a pedagogical model developed in a highly innovative lab course created by Professor Robert Bender with funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

When Julian Adams assumed the Chair of the Department of Biology in 1996, some of the key faculty members hired in the 1960s to build up cell and molecular biology had begun to phase into retirement, so hiring in these areas became a major focus. Six faculty were hired: James Bardwell, Cunming Duan, Kenneth Cadigan, Jianming Li, Daniel Klionsky, and Ursula Jakob. All have become prominent scientists in their respective fields. Bardwell, the Rowena G. Matthews Professor of MCDB, has been named and successfully reappointed as an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; Klionsky is the Alexander G. Ruthven Professor of Life Sciences in the Life Sciences Institute. Professors Bardwell, Klionsky and Li, as well as Eran Pichersky, have all been named Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Department of MCDB: 2001 - present

In 1999, an external review of the Department of Biology, commissioned by LSA Dean Shirley Neuman,  concluded that the range of research and teaching conducted by Biology faculty had become so broad that it was no longer possible to effectively manage the Department, and recommended separation into two smaller departments. Further, the reviewers recommended that an external search be conducted for the chairs of both departments, and that substantial funds for building renovation and lab start up would be necessary for them to succeed.

On July 1, 2001 the two new departments went into operation, with Deborah Goldberg as interim Chair of EEB and Eran Pichersky as interim Chair of MCDB while searches for external chairs were initiated. A search for an outside chair for MCDB was later abandoned; and Richard Hume was named Chair of MCDB in 2003. The Program in Biology was established at this time as a joint administrative unit to allow for shared management of entry-level biology, student services for the several undergraduate biology concentrations (majors), and the facilities in the E. H. Kraus building.

A wave of retirements accompanied the formation of the new departments. During the two years that Pichersky was interim Chair of MCDB, faculty hiring was focused on rebuilding core areas. Yeast cell biologists Amy Chang and Anuj Kumar and microbial cell biologist Matthew Chapman were hired during Pichersky’s term. With the retirements of Easter and Oakley and the departures of Tosney and Bodmer, it also proved necessary to do aggressive hiring in neurobiology to maintain the gains in stature achieved during the 1990s. Pichersky began this process with the hiring of Mohammed Akaaboune.  During his years as chair, Professor Hume hired animal cell biologists Yanzhuang Wang and Gyorgyi Csankovszki, plant cell biologist Erik Nielsen and microbial cell biologist Lyle Simmons, as well as two other cell biologists who later left the department. Hume also hired neurobiologists Haoxing Xu, Catherine Collins, and Kwoon Wong. In 2009 Xu was named a Fellow of the Alfred Sloan Foundation, and in 2010 he received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. The Department also gained nationally prominent developmental neurobiologist Pamela Raymond, who moved her faculty line from the U-M Medical School to MCDB in 2005.

Professor Raymond, the Stephen S. Easter Collegiate Professor of MCDB, succeeded to the Chair of MCDB in 2008. She has recruited an outstanding and diverse group of new faculty members, including developmental cell biologists Ann Miller and Laura Buttita; neurobiologists Orie Shafer and Sara Aton; microbiologist Blaise Boles, plant molecular geneticist Andrezj Wierzbicki, and biochemist, Jayakrishnan Nandakumar. Aton was named a Fellow of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in 2012, and in 2013 she received a National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award. Professor Raymond completed her term as chair in June 2014, as the department was preparing for three more women scientists recruited on her watch.

Extensive hiring since 2001 has allowed major improvements to three parts of the undergraduate curriculum. First, MCDB has been able to revive the microbiology major, which had been placed on hiatus because there were too few faculty members to teach the necessary courses. This major is a joint undertaking with three other departments: EEB, Microbiology & Immunology (Medical School), and Epidemiology (School of Public Health.

Second, it has allowed MCDB to collaborate with the Department of Psychology to establish a neuroscience major. Since first accepting students in 2005, the major has grown exceptionally rapidly, to the point that it is now the largest natural science major in LSA, with over 600 declared juniors and seniors. The teaching in this major is split approximately 70 percent MCDB/30 percent Psychology. In 2013, Professor Richard Hume was named faculty director of the new Undergraduate Program in Neuroscience.

The third thing that a decade of extensive hiring has facilitated is that it has allowed MCDB to significantly improve the quality and quantity of classes in the cell and molecular biology major, which it teaches and administers on its own, and also in the biology and general biology majors, which it splits 50/50 with EEB. In 2011 Professor Laura Olsen, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, was named faculty director of the Program in Biology. In 2012, it moved its offices for student services to new headquarters in the Undergraduate Science Building, which also houses all the teaching laboratories for MCDB and Biology. With increased space and staff, the undergraduate Program in Biology has made significant improvements in student services and advising.

MCDB continues to review and evaluate the future of the field and establish programs to serve the University’s educational mission. In 2012, in collaboration with the Rackham Graduate School, MCDB established a new, thesis-based master’s program, called Pathways, which is designed to prepare underrepresented students to succeed in top-rated doctoral programs in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology.

As the University of Michigan approaches its bicentennial year in 2017, work has begun on a new biology building for MCDB and EEB faculty and their research programs, one conducive to collaboration essential to promoting interdisciplinary research in systems biology at the molecular, cellular, and organismal levels. The University and the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, are committed to this goal.

About the Natural Science Building

Faced with a lack of space for a growing science curriculum, the Regents in 1913 asked the legislature for a $375,000 appropriation for the Natural Science Building. Designed by Albert Kahn of Detroit, the building was completed in 1915 at a final cost of $408,000. The building originally housed the departments of Botany, Geology, Mineralogy, Zoology, Psychology and the School of Natural Resources. 

Situated on the south side of North University Avenue, the building faces Hill Auditorium and stands on the site of the old Homeopathic Medical School. To the east, the building looks across the Mall at the Chemistry Building. The building forms almost a perfect square and is constructed of dark red tapestry brick with a trim of light terracotta. Kahn designed the building along principles gleaned from factory architecture, using regularly spaced steel and concrete piers for support, and maximizing the amount of light and window space.

Edward H. Kraus (Syracuse 1896, Ph.D. Munich 1901), Professor of Minerology, was appointed Dean of the College of Literature, Science, & Arts in August of 1933. The Natural Sciences Building was named in his honor. More about the history of the Natural Science building is available on the UM History site.

Kraus Natural Science Building