By: Eunice Kim
Elaine Fuchs is a renowned cell biologist whose work on skin stem cells has been crucial to furthering our current understanding of their roles in aging, cancer, and the inflammatory response.
As an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), Fuchs was one of three women taking chemistry, physics, and mathematics classes. The scrutiny she received because of her gender motivated her to excel in her studies at UIUC and later as a graduate student Princeton, where she investigated the biosynthesis of bacterial sporulation. She went on to do a postdoctoral fellowship at MIT, where she developed an interest in skin cell biology. Soon after, she became the first female faculty member in the biochemistry department at the University of Chicago, where she pioneered the reverse genetics approach to study the role of keratins. Unlike the forward genetics approach, which is used to link a specific disease phenotype to its genetic basis, reverse genetics assesses if and how defects in gene function are related to a specific disease phenotype. Using recombinant DNA technology, her team investigated the effects of genetically mutating keratins–major structural components of skin cells–by inserting these mutant proteins into transgenic mice. These mice developed severe epidermal blistering, which was shown to be phenotypically similar to the human disorder epidermolysis bullosa simplex (EBS). Through collaborative work with dermatologists, Fuchs was able to demonstrate that similar mutations resulting in defective keratin underlie EBS. Her revolutionary approach of applying mouse genetics to understand human diseases has become standard practice in the biomedical sciences, and has helped researchers identify the underlying genetic etiologies of many human inherited disorders.
Elaine Fuchs currently serves as the Rebecca C. Lancefield Professor Mammalian Cell Biology and Development at Rockefeller University, where she continues to study the mechanisms that underlie mammalian ectodermal differentiation and development, and their relation to genetic diseases of the skin and nervous system. She has trained at least thirty Ph.D. graduate students and one hundred postdoctoral fellows throughout the course of her scientific career. She has accumulated numerous accolades over the years, including but not limited to the National Medal of Science in 2009, L’Oreál-UNESCO award in 2010, the March of Dimes Prize in 2012, the E. B. Wilson Prize from the American Society of Cell Biology in 2015, and the Canada Gairdner International Award in 2020. More recently, she was the recipient of the 2022 Bert and Natalie Vallee Award in Biomedical Science. She is also a member of several scientific societies, including the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS), and was named one of the Nation’s Outstanding Scientists in 1985. She has been a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Investigator since 1988, and holds honorary doctorates from her alma mater, the University of Illinois, as well as from the Mount Sinai and New York University Schools of Medicine.