Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1940, Gerald R. Fink spent most of his childhood in what was then the small town of Freeport, Long Island. He played basketball in high school (sometimes guarding future Basketball-Hall-of-Famer Larry Brown) and college and briefly harbored a dream of becoming a professional player—“until I realized how many people were taller than I was,” he says, laughing. By his senior year, Fink was already fascinated by science, an interest that only intensified after the October 1957 Russian launch of Sputnik. “That event shocked the nation and changed my little town,” he recalls. “Suddenly everyone thought it was their duty to do something to prevent the Russians from putting up something that would bomb us.”
After graduation, Fink went to Amherst College, where he majored in biology. His father, a physician, encouraged his son to follow him into medicine, but Fink (who says the sight of blood made him faint when he was a young man) decided instead to pursue graduate studies in molecular biology and genetics at Yale University.
It was while he was at Yale that Fink began looking for a simple eukaryotic organism (one whose cells have nuclei) to study the molecular biology of gene regulation. He eventually chose Saccharamyces cerevisiae, a harmless fungus more commonly known as “baker’s” or “brewer’s” yeast. “It was easy to work with—and it smelled good!” he recalls with characteristic enthusiasm. “And at the time, few people were studying it. I’ve always looked to work in areas where there is an interesting question, but not too many people working on it.”
In 1965, after receiving his PhD in genetics from Yale, Fink moved to Bethesda, Maryland, with his wife, Rosalie, and two young daughters, Julia and Jennifer, to pursue postdoctoral work in the molecular biology lab of Dr. Bruce Ames at the National Institutes of Health. “I had two great years in his lab, and we have been terrific friends ever since,” Fink says.
In 1967, Fink joined the faculty at Cornell University, where he became a full professor of biochemistry. When recombinant DNA technology (transplanting the DNA from one species into the cells of a different “host” species) was developed in the early 1970s, Fink quickly began to investigate whether the process would work in yeast. “Nobody imagined it could be done in yeast,” he recalls. “It had only been done in bacteria.”
In 1977, Fink made his groundbreaking discovery: a “transforming” technique that allowed scientists to introduce genetic material (DNA) from any organism (including humans) into living yeast cells so that the DNA could be studied for how it expressed itself and for how it passed on information to new generations of cells.
“Once we figured that out, everything changed,” says Fink. “Now, when you wanted to study a gene, you could just do it. You could manipulate the genetics of an organism at will, which made it much easier to figure things out about gene structure.”
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.
Among Fink’s many other discoveries was the identification of the genetic mechanisms by which disease-causing fungi form probing filaments and switch from being benign to infectious. When that switch occurs in a type of yeast called Candida albicans, for example, the result can be such illnesses as vaginal yeast infections, thrush, and the rare but life-threatening systemic candidal disease. Uncovering the genetic mechanisms behind the formation of the filaments has led to a better understanding of how Candida can overpower the immune system—clues that may lead to new life-saving anti-fungal drugs.
Fink also played a key role in developing the small flowering plant Arabidopsis thaliana (sometimes called mouse-ear cress) as a model organism for studying plant biology and genetics. Using this model, he developed a way of genetically engineering plants that are tolerant to salt and drought.
Fink went to MIT in 1982 to become a professor of molecular genetics, a position he continues to hold today. In his lab and elsewhere he has taught—and inspired—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. Fink has been the recipient of many professional honors, including memberships in the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has served as president of the Genetics Society of America (1988-1989) and chaired the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Research Standards and Practices to Prevent the Destructive Application of Biotechnology from 2002-2003.
When he isn’t pursuing his laboratory research or teaching, Fink enjoys fishing (including deep-sea fishing) with his wife and grandchildren. “Every time I go out, it’s an adventure,” he says. That sense of adventure has characterized his professional pursuits as well. “I seemed to have had a good sniffer for where the field was going,” he says. “When everybody was going this way, I thought, maybe we should go that way. And history, perhaps, has proven me correct.”