Claude Desplan

Silver Professor of Biology, NYU


Claude Desplan, a Silver Professor at NYU, and affiliate professor at NYU in Abu Dhabi. He is a geneticist who spent his scientific life analyzing molecular and genetic mechanisms controlling cell fate decisions as well as their evolution.

After his PhD in France working on Calcium regulation, Desplan did his postdoc in the laboratory of Pat O’Farrell at UCSF where he initiated his studies of the homeodomain. He demonstrated that this conserved signature of many developmental genes is a DNA binding motif (Desplan, Nature 1985; Desplan, Cell 1988).  In 1987, he joined the Faculty of Rockefeller University where he became an HHMI Associate Investigator. He pursued structural studies of the homeodomain and the paired domain in Pax genes (Treisman, Cell 1989; Okhuma, Cell 1990; Xu et al., Cell 1995). He identified the molecular determinants controlling DNA binding specificity of different classes of homeoproteins (Wilson, Cell, 1995). He also began work on the evolution of axis formation in insects (Treisman, Nature 1989; Ronchi et al., Cell 1993; Simpson-Brose et al., Cell 1994), focusing on the synergy between the Bicoid morphogen and other anterior systems in the embryo.

After moving to NYU in 1999, his laboratory brought to light the molecular mechanisms that pattern Drosophila photoreceptors responsible for color vision. It showed how stochastic decisions are controlled to increase neuronal diversity among photoreceptors (Wernet, Nature 2006; Wernet, Cell 2003; Johnston, Science 2014). His lab also deciphered the complex transcription factor network that controls the specification of the various types of photoreceptors (Johnston, Cell 2011). He also showed how the architecture of a tumor suppressor pathway that normally controls the homeostatic regulation of proliferation is rewired to control a postmitotic binary cell fate decision in photoreceptors to express one rhodopsin or another (Mikeladze-Dvali, Cell 2011, Jukam, Dev. Cell 2011; Jukam, Science 2013, Rister, Science 2015).

More recently, his laboratory sought to understand how color and motion information is processed in the optic lobes by investigating their development and function (Morante, Current Biol. 2008). His laboratory showed that neuronal diversity is generated by a temporal sequence of transcription factors expressed in neuroblasts, and by spatial input from patterning genes (Li, Nature, 2013, Erclik, 2017). The temporal sequence can also control the death or survival of Notch+ or Notch- neuronal progeny as well as the mode of division of neuroblasts (Bertet, Cell 2014). His lab has also shown how neural development can involve extensive contributions from glial cells to generate neural diversity (Fernandes, Science, 2017). The lab now investigates the molecular mechanisms leading to neuronal differentiation and neuronal wiring using single cell sequencing throughout development. The goal is to establish the rules that govern how transcriptional networks control the various functional features of a neuron.

Finally, his lab has embarked into functional studies of neuronal circuits that control motion and color vision. It has deciphered the neurons that perform the computational steps for motion detection, thus providing the cellular implementation of the ‘elementary motion detector’ proposed over fifty years ago to explain the behavioral properties of the fly (Behnia, Nature 2014). In a recent contribution, his lab has also identified the mechanisms of neurogenesis that allow the formation of the retinotopic maps that allow the fly to detect motion in all four cardinal directions (Pinto-Teixeira, Cell, 2018).

Desplan’s laboratory also uses ‘evo-devo’ approaches to understand the evolution of patterning mechanisms in the embryo and in the visual system using the wasp Nasonia, the ant Harpegnathos (Simola, Science 2016; Yan, Cell, 2017) as well as butterflies (Perry, Nature, 2016) and various dipterans as model systems. He contributed broadly to the understanding of how insect embryos pattern their antero-posterior axis through extensive rewiring of a network of genes that are otherwise evolutionarily conserved in Drosophila (Lynch, Nature 2006; Brent, Science 2007; Rosenberg, eLife 2014).

Desplan serves on multiple scientific advisory boards and in funding agencies. He is an elected member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, an elected foreign member of EMBO, and an elected fellow of the New York Academy of Sciences and of the US National Academy of Science.