Michael Rosbash was born in Kansas City, Missouri, but his parents, who had fled Germany in 1938, moved the family to Boston when Rosbash was a toddler. In high school, Rosbash was more interested in math than science, but an undergraduate biology course at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and a summer working in the laboratory of the renowned CalTech biochemist Norman Davidson changed his mind—and the direction of his career.
“That was the time when the genetic code was being cracked,” Rosbash recalled. “The whole ambience of the early days of molecular biology was exciting—and contagious.”
After graduating from Caltech in 1965 with a degree in chemistry (and memories of playing on the varsity football team), Rosbash spent a year at the Institut de Biologie Physico-Chimique in Paris on a Fulbright fellowship. He then returned to Boston to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received a doctoral degree in biophysics in 1970. Rosbash joined the faculty of Brandeis University in 1973 and, after a three-year fellowship in genetics at the University of Edinburgh, has remained at Brandeis ever since. Today he is a professor of biology and director of its National Center for Behavioral Genomics. He is also an adjunct professor of molecular biology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
Rosbash’s early research focused on the metabolism and processing of RNA, but he was also deeply interested in genetic influences on behavior, and the fruit fly, Drosophila, offered a powerful system to study. Some years after arriving at Brandeis, Rosbash teamed up with another new scientist there, Jeffrey Hall, and together they successfully cloned the first Drosophila circadian clock gene, period, in 1984. A few years later, they proposed the mechanism—a transcriptional negative feedback loop—that drives the fruit fly’s internal biological clocks. That model holds up today, and has been found to be applicable not just to fruit flies, but to all other living organisms, including humans.
For his cutting-edge contributions to the field of molecular genetics, Rosbash has been widely honored. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1997 and the National Academy of Sciences in 2003. He’s also been a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator since 1989.
Rosbash continues his two primary avenues of research: RNA processing and the genetic mechanisms that underlie biological rhythms. “I’d really like to find out how the timing of the clocks works,” he says. “Why 24 hours and not, say, 28 hours? I’m also very interested in the nervous system and sleep. No one really understands how or why we sleep. That has me intrigued as well.”