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Professor Michael Ashburner FRS

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Michael Ashburner, Emeritus Professor of Biology at the University of Cambridge and the former Joint Head of the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI), was one of the world’s leading geneticists. For most of his career he analysed the genetic structure of Drosophila melanogaster, observing the patterns of chromosome puffing to understand the process of genetic control of development. He was one of the team that sequenced the creature’s genome, and went on to play a role in the project to sequence the human genome, as Joint Head of the European Bioinformatics Institute at the genome campus at Hinxton. Michael was the first undergraduate of the College to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. While a student he was arrested and briefly jailed for demonstrating on behalf of the anti-nuclear Committee of 100; his tutor’s response was to arrange for books to be got to him.

He was educated at the Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe and the University of Cambridge, where he received his undergraduate degree (1964) and Ph.D. (1968), both in genetics, and both at Churchill College. He then went to the California Institute of Technology as a postdoctoral fellow with Hershel Mitchell. In 1969, he returned to the Department of Genetics in Cambridge where he has been based since, as Assistant in Research, University Demonstrator, University Lecturer, Reader in Developmental Biology and Professor (ad hominem) of Biology (1991-2011), and Emeritus from 2011.

He was Miller Professor at the University of California at Berkeley and Visiting Professor at the University of California Medical School, San Francisco; Visiting Professor, at the University of Crete, Greece and the University of Pavia, Italy.

For the period 1994-2001 he was first Research Coordinator and then Joint Head of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory – European Bioinformatics Institute at Hinxton, Cambridge. During this period he was on 50% leave from the University of Cambridge.

His major research interests were the structure and evolution of genomes. Most of his research was with the model organism Drosophila melanogaster, about which he wrote the standard research text (Drosophila: A Laboratory Handbook, Cold Spring Harbor Press, New York, 1989, 2nd ed. 2005). His research covered a range of subjects, from classical genetics, developmental biology, cytogenetics to evolution, at both molecular and organismal levels. He was a member of the consortium that sequenced the entire genome of this fly (of which he published an account, Won for All: How the Drosophila Genome was Sequenced, Cold Spring Harbor Press, New York 2006).

He had a strong interest in the provision of databases for biologists for over 20 years. He was a founder of FlyBase, a major database for researchers using Drosophila as a model organism, a co-founder of the Gene Ontology Consortium (, a project to provide infrastructure for biological databases by a defined taxonomy of gene function and of the broader Open Biologocal and Biomedical Ontologies Project (https://

Ashburner was a Fellow of the Royal Society of London and of the Academia Europeae; he was a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the European Molecular Biology Organization, and past president of the British Genetics Society. He had honorary doctorates from the Universities of Crete and Edinburgh. He received the Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal and the George Beadle Medal from the Genetics Society of America, the Mendel Medal from the Czech Academy of Sciences, the Genetics Society Medal from the (British) Genetics Society, the Benjamin Franklin Award from the Bioinformatics Organization and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Society for Computational Biology. He was a Fellow of Churchill College from 1980, first as Title B (Senior), then as Title E, Title C and later Title D.

He married Francesca Ryan in 1963, at the end of his 2nd year in Churchill. They had three children, Rebecca (1965), Geoffrey (1967, born when they were living in Flat 5 when Ashburner was a graduate student) and Isabel (1970).