Very few scientists were interested in the genetics of the common fungus known as “baker’s yeast” (Saccharamyces cerevisiae) when Gerald R. Fink began studying it in the 1960s. That changed dramatically after 1977, however, when Fink developed the landmark technique of yeast transformation—a method for introducing genetic material (DNA) from any organism (including humans) into living yeast cells so that the DNA can be studied for how it expresses itself and for how it passes on information to new generations. Until then, “nobody imagined [recombinant DNA technology] could be done in yeast,” he recalls. “It had only been done in bacteria.”
Today, yeast is used as a kind of biological factory to produce many medically important products, including insulin and vaccines. Fink’s yeast transformation method also laid the groundwork for conducting similar genetic manipulations in more complex organisms.
Fink went on to make other groundbreaking contributions to the field of yeast genetics, including the identification of the genetic mechanisms by which disease-causing fungi form probing filaments and switch from being benign to infectious. That finding has led to a better understanding of how a fungus like Candida albicans (the cause of vaginal infections in women, thrush in babies, and life-threatening infections in immunocompromised patients) can overpower the immune system—clues that are helping scientists develop life-saving anti-fungal drugs.
In addition to being known as the founder of modern yeast genetics, Fink is also renowned for teaching—and inspiring—a generation of geneticists. He was one of the first instructors of the Yeast Genetics Course at Cold Spring Harbor (called “a career-altering course” by many participants) and founding member and then director for 11 years (1990-2001) of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass. Now 70, Fink continues to teach and conduct research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he has been a professor of genetics since 1982. “Genetics is not a technology, but a way of thinking about biological problems in a structured way,” he says. “It has its own language. I enjoy imparting that way of thinking, that language, to students—and seeing them slowly begin to look at the world around them in an entirely new way.”