We are very pleased to announce that this year’s Waddington medal winner is Professor Marysia Placzek, Professor of Developmental Neurobiology at the School of Biosciences, University of Sheffield. Marysia’s research career has led to several key contributions to our understanding of the mechanisms directing patterning of the vertebrate nervous system.
The Waddington Medal is the only national award in Developmental Biology. It honours outstanding research performance as well as services to the subject community. This year’s medal was awarded at the European Developmental Biology Congress, hosted by the BSDB at Oxford, where the recipient presented the Waddington Medal Lecture.
Marysia Placzek is an outstanding and internationally leading Developmental Biologist who has made significant contributions to our understanding of how signalling directs patterning of the vertebrate nervous system, and to leadership and pedagogy of the field. Marysia uncovered how tissue interactions and combinations of signals regulate the organisation of cell fate and assembly of neural circuits in the spinal cord and hypothalamus. Her papers are masterworks in precise observation and elegant experimental design, and many have become foundational. As deputy and then acting Director of the MRC Centre for Developmental and Biomedical Genetics (2007-2013), Marysia has been instrumental in building Developmental Biology research at the University of Sheffield. She subsequently established the Bateson Centre, a cross-faculty inter-disciplinary research centre, to provide a focus for translational approaches to development and disease research at the University. In addition to leading research initiatives, Marysia is a passionate Developmental Biology teacher: running modules in Developmental Biology, Developmental Neurobiology, and Stem & Regenerative Biology. She is now bringing this, more than 20 years teaching experience, to a new role as co-editor, along with Cheryll Tickle, of Lewis Wolpert’s core textbook “Principles of Development”.
Following PhD research on proviral integration sites in mouse mammary carcinomas with Gordon Peters at the ICRF (1987-1992), Marysia moved to New York as a post-doc with Jane Dodd at Columbia University. During this time, she made two fundamental, textbook changing, contributions to our understanding of neural development. With Marc Tessier-Lavigne, she demonstrated that spinal cord floor-plate cells secrete a diffusible factor that influences the pattern and orientation of commissural axon growth (Nature 1988); this discovery presaged characterisation of the Netrin family of axon guidance molecules. She then went on to define the crucial role of the notochord/floor plate in patterning the central nervous system along its dorso-ventral axis (Science, 1990). The discovery of this fundamental tissue interaction underpinned the subsequent identification of Sonic hedgehog as the mediator of this activity, a breakthrough to which Marysia also contributed. As an independent investigator, Marysia has focussed on the role of the most anterior axial mesoderm, the prechordal plate, which emerges from the primitive streak just prior to the notochord. Marysia and her team have uncovered the mechanisms by which the prechordal plate orchestrates development of the hypothalamus (Cell 1997) and described the development of hypothalamic progenitors. A key discovery is the existence of a modified floor plate-like cell that displays stem cell-like characteristics and that gives rise to discrete hypothalamic progenitor cell populations, involving a mechanism that links cell specification and anisotropic growth (Developmental Cell 2006; Development 2017). By combining fate-mapping studies, classic embryological manipulations and cutting-edge molecular approaches, Marysia’s work is uncovering the developmental origins of these earliest hypothalamic stem/progenitor cells, and the signals that induce and constrain them (Development 2017; Cell Reports 2022). Together, her studies provide a roadmap for hypothalamic development, from its induction, to regionalisation, to neurogenesis, and challenge the widely accepted prosomere model of forebrain organization. Moreover, Marysia’s identification of this stem-like population in the embryo led to her work in the adult mouse, and one of the first detailed descriptions of the maintenance of neurogenic progenitors in the postnatal hypothalamus (Nature Comms. 2013), a paper that is widely cited as evidence for an adult hypothalamic stem cell niche.
Marysia is an embryologist par excellence and is known for her supportive mentoring of trainees. Her work is characterised by remarkable insight into tissue organisation of the early nervous system and an extraordinary ability to identify, dissect and manipulate unique cell populations. Her independent work has elucidated intrinsic and environmental mechanisms that regulate hypothalamic stem and progenitor cells across the life course. Marysia’s contributions to research have been recognised by award of the Otto Mangold Prize from the German Society for Developmental Biology (1999) and the MRC Suffrage Science Heirloom (2012). She has and continues to take a leading role in the Developmental Biology community and beyond. On return from USA as a new PI and new mother, she ran (with husband Andy Furley), an Autumn meeting for the BSDB (baby on hip), and faithfully sends her students and post-docs to BSDB meetings. Marysia has been a member of numerous funding panels for MRC, BBSRC, CRUK, and Wellcome Trust (see CV) and she is the current Chair of the new Wellcome Cell Biology, Development and Physiology Discovery Advisory Group. She is a very deserving candidate for the Waddington Medal.
- Kate Storey
- James Briscoe