Cork, Ireland, 2016: Hermann Steller

HERMANN STELLER lives comfortably in many worlds. He completed his undergraduate and doctoral studies in Germany (undergraduate in Frankfurt, working on the genetics of bacterial sporulation) and Ph.D. (summa cum laude, using gene transfer to study regulation of genes in Drosophila at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg). He then took these skills in genetics to the University of California, Berkeley, where as a postdoctoral fellow he used genetics of Drosophila to analyze neuronal specificity. This research was sufficiently promising that he moved next to the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and the Department of Biology at MIT, where he rose to the ranks of Professor and Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Meanwhile, his research led deeper into the study of apoptosis in Drosophila. He started by developing the now widely used technique of using acridine orange to scan for cell deaths in embryos. He continued by defining a controllable situation of cell death, the eyeless series of mutants and, by genetic screening and anatomic localization of mutants, identified the regulation and control of a seemingly new pathway of cell death, involving grim, reaper, and Hid. Many researchers were frightened away by these discoveries. Whereas the Caenorhabditis cell death pathway was remarkably similar to that of vertebrates including mammals, this was different.  Characteristically, though, he used this difference as a provocation and stimulus, working out where the pathways were similar and asking what could be learned from their similarities. From these comparisons he began to understand the complex negative and positive feedback loops that limit the randomness of the decision to die. This was another level of different worlds: to keep focused on mammalian and insect cell death mechanisms, hunting for the generalities that connected them.

These studies, in addition to spawning the current heads of many fine laboratories throughout the world, led him into another important area: when caspases or other proteases are activated without necessarily killing cells. Such studies led him to apoptosis-like processes such as sperm differentiation and to recognition of apoptosis signaling mechanisms cells undergoing apoptosis can stimulate other cells, at some distance, to respond by initiating division or, surprisingly, also initiate apoptosis. As was logically necessary but needed to be proved, the transmission of these signals required very tight control of the activity of cytoplasmic proteases.  All of these findings have pronounced implications for future drug development.

In 2000, he moved again into a new era of different worlds. After spending a year at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, he spent the next several years between Rockefeller, where he is Strang Professor and Head of Laboratory, and as a Visiting Professor at the Technion in Israel. During this period he developed his interest in the communication and regulation of death signals, as well as acquiring a collaborator and life partner.

For his unstinting and uncompromising insistence on knowing the communication sequences within and among cells, the International Cell Death Society is proud to honor Dr. Steller’s achievements.