Peter Lawrence is a pioneer in pattern formation in the early development of Drosophila. In 1969 he became a member of scientific staff of the MRC (Medical Research Laboratory) of Molecular Biology at Cambridge, U.K.. In 2006 he had to retire at the age of 65 but continues his research with the help of a grant from the Wellcome Foundation.
From insect physiology to the study of the genetics of pattern formation
The morphogen gradient theory
The compartment theory
Joining the LMB
Old ideas, crucial institutions and people
The transformation of old concepts
Fashions and theoretical biology
Enemies of science
UD: Another thing. Can you tell me a bit about the compartment theory that was set up by Antonio Garcia-Bellido, and further developed by yourself? Was it purely theoretical or based on experiments?
PL: Well, it started, really, in two ways. One is that I made clones in a bug, Oncopeltus, and I noticed that the clones respected particular lines. First, they respected a segment boundary. In Oncopeltus the epidermis is just a simple epithelial sheet. I noticed that the clones, coloured patches which are generated by X-rays, respected standard lines, and one particular line, the segment boundary, was easy to see because it is associated with a colour change in the normal insect. But there was a line where the anterior and the posterior compartments meet, which we know now and didn't know then, which also was being respected by the clones. So that was one origin of compartments, and it was important for me that around that time, which was about 1970-71, I was invited to Madrid for the British Council – they paid for it – to talk to Antonio and his people. I went for the first time for a week and a second time for a month.
I presented all this exciting stuff about compartments and what the Madrid school had found that supported what I had done with Oncopeltus to the cell biology division in the LMB, particularly Francis and Sydney.
UD: You mean Francis Crick?
PL: Crick, yes, and the other people in the division. We had a meeting that went on for a couple of hours. I was telling them what I had learned and they were discussing it. Those were such intellectual days.
UD: Does it mean that you joined forces with the molecular biologists?
PL: Well, they were molecular biologists but I wouldn't say I joined forces with them. I carried on working. Francis was interested and I worked with him for the next two years. But we didn't do molecular biology with him. I did try to develop a molecular assay for a planar polarity signal, but it didn't work.