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Michael Ashburner: a career built on flies

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By | From the Collections

Michael Ashburner is a pioneer of genomics and bioinformatics who has made the study of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster his life’s work. The first three sections of the Michael Ashburner archive (Library reference: PP/MIA) are now available to researchers in the Library. The sections now catalogued are Section A: Laboratory work, Section B: Bioinformatics work, and Section G: Conference and meeting papers.

Michael Ashburner

Michael Ashburner. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

The Ashburner archive is the most comprehensive genomics archive held by Wellcome Library. It documents an entire career, from Ashburner’s initial research after graduation from the University of Cambridge in 1964 to his later genome sequencing and bioinformatics work in the 1990s and 2000s.

A page from one of Ashburner's complex chromosomes research files, 1979-1989

T(Y;2) synthetic deletions: a page from one of Ashburner’s complex chromosomes research files, 1979-1989. Wellcome Library reference: PP/MIA/A/2/4/1.

Section A (Laboratory work) contains the main bulk of Ashburner’s scientific papers. The 123 lab notebooks date from 1963 to 1996 and show the development of his research interests as his career progressed. There are also extensive research files that show Ashburner’s interest in Drosophila. These document the various areas of research with which he engaged, including species crossing, polytene chromosome puffing, and the ADH (alcohol dehydrogenase) region. The work carried out by Ashburner and his laboratory to characterise the ADH region later proved to be invaluable for validating genome sequence annotation strategies.

In the late 1980s, Ashburner became involved in the European Drosophila Mapping Project, which aimed to produce a physical map of the Drosophila melanogaster genome. This then turned into the European Drosophila Genome Project (EDGP) after focus shifted from genome mapping to sequencing.

In 1998 the private company Celera Genomics joined forces with the Berkeley Drosophila Genome Project to sequence the Drosophila melanogaster genome in its entirety as a proof of concept before sequencing the human genome. The EDGP joined this collaboration and Ashburner was instrumental in organising a two week “jamboree” at Celera headquarters in November 1999 to annotate the genome sequence. The archive documents these developments, along with subsequent work and publications produced after the sequence was published in March 2000.

A draft letter of invitation to the Celera Jamboree, 1999

Extract from a draft letter of invitation to the Celera Jamboree, 1999. Wellcome Library Reference: PP/MIA/A/5/5/2.

In the latter half of his career, Ashburner became increasingly interested in bioinformatics, a field concerned with developing software tools to aid understanding and interpretation of biological data. Section B of the archive (Bioinformatics work) documents Ashburner’s work in this area. It includes papers regarding the development of FlyBase, an online Drosophila melanogaster bioinformatics database launched in 1992 and co-founded by Ashburner.

His interest in this field led him to champion Cambridgeshire as a suitable location for the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI). He eventually became joint-head of this institute in 1998. The bioinformatics work done whilst at EMBL-EBI, including Ashburner’s work on gene ontology, form part of Section C (European Bioinformatics Institute), which will be released in the next instalment.

Ashburner was a prolific networker, as can be seen from the extraordinary number of conference and meeting papers held in Section G. If a conference, seminar or workshop was held, there is a good chance Ashburner was present.

And he didn’t limit himself to genetics and genomics meetings, but got involved in a broad range of conferences and advisory boards, including the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, the Public Library of Science, and computational biology workshops. Taken together, the papers in Section G are an excellent illustration of the scientific networks in existence in the late twentieth century, particularly during the 1990s (Ashburner’s travelling peak).

Along with the fly and bioinformatics work, Ashburner has been an important champion of open data release. He has also managed to make time for his teaching work as Professor of Biology at the University of Cambridge. These interests can be explored further in the remaining sections of the catalogued, which will be released in stages during late 2015 and early 2016. The sections are:

  • Section C: European Bioinformatics Institute
  • Section D: Subject files
  • Section E: Publications
  • Section F: University of Cambridge papers and teaching work
  • Section H: Correspondence

Having such a comprehensive archive shows all facets of Ashburner’s career and gives an insight into his wide ranging interests.

Victoria Sloyan

Victoria Sloyan is an archivist at the Wellcome Library.

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