Developmental Biology

Publication Analysis 1999-2010
by Kathleen Gransalke, Labtimes 01/2013


View the Tables: Europe...and the World, Most Cited Authors...and Papers

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Compared to the first developmental biology publication analysis we did in 2006, 19 of our top 30 most-cited authors made a reappearance in the 2012 ranking. Interestingly, the top six are also located in six different countries.

Scientific literature is, normally, not exactly an entertaining read. The language in papers is as dry as a Petri dish forgotten in the incubator over the holidays. Every now and then, however, there are a few articles that break this rule. Interestingly, those cases seem to be more frequent in developmental biology than in any other scientific discipline.

Already, when it comes to naming their newly-found genes and proteins, developmental biologists clearly display their sense of humour. Drosophila researchers, in particular, would certainly deserve an award for the most creative names, even though, in most cases, the odd names only describe an even odder phenotype. Some of our favourites include jelly belly, a gene involved with visceral mesoderm development, faint sausage required for establishing correct wiring of the nervous system and, last but not least, in 2000, one of our top heads (see Table on p.36), Peter Gruss, discovered taube nuss (German for numbskull), a “novel gene essential for the survival of pluripotent cells of early mouse embryos”. Even when working with a less cool gene or protein, developmental biologists make sure that all puns are indeed intended. That’s why the scientific record is shining with paper gems like “You Wnt some, you lose some: oncogenes in the Wnt signaling pathway”, “Head in the WNT: the molecular nature of Spemann’s head organizer” and “Oh no, Notch again!”


Molossus rufus (black mastiff bat) - finalist in the Nikon Small World 2012 photomicrography competition. Photo: Dorit Hockmann, Cambridge University

Close interactions between disciplines

By the way, last year, EMBO Journal celebrated the 30th anniversary of the discovery of the first mammalian Wnt gene by Roel Nusse and Harold Varmus with a special issue. In the accompanying editorial, Thomas Schwarz-Romond, senior editor at EMBO Journal, wrote that the finding “laid the foundation for close interactions between developmental geneticists and cancer biologists (because) the Wnt gene provided molecular evidence that cancer can arise from developmental abnormalities, that is from cells that manage to escape developmental control mechanisms”.

This connection between cancer and developmental biology was also one of the cruxes of our publication analysis. The line between these two disciplines becomes more and more blurry as many cancer researchers go back to the beginning of their study subject’s life to look for helpful clues.

In addition to cancer researchers, many cell biologists also tried to squeeze in from the widely overlapping areas of the field. As a matter of fact, cell and developmental biology are like conjoined twins and hard to separate – we nevertheless tried and were able to define those scientists as developmental biologists, who are mainly interested in the general processes of how a single cell turns into a working tissue, organ or animate being.

Also on the table are stem cell biologists; here, we decided to include only those mostly working on embryonic stem cells, not adult stem cells.

Once again, for preparing our country rankings (blue Table on p. 35) we could only revert to the so-called “expert journals”, Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science, the database we used for this analysis, filed under “developmental biology”. Despite their clear-cut title, many of those developmental expert journals like Genes & Development or Developmental Cell, however, are not exclusively dedicated to developmental biology but also publish papers of “broad general interest and biological significance”. We nevertheless believe that the numbers obtained for this part of the analysis are a good reflection of the developmental biology research output in Europe and the world. For our most highly-cited researchers, we were able to draw from an unlimited journal source. Here, we also took advantage of the Researcher ID (RID), where available. Among our top 30, only four researchers – Detlef Weigel, Wolf Reik, Jiri Friml and Rüdiger Klein – have joined the RID club so far, which we enthusiastically applaud.

Overtaken by the USA

Off to the numbers. Before we start, it’s worth mentioning that this is the second round of developmental biology publication analysis. The first round dates back to 2006 and encompassed all articles, reviews and proceedings papers in developmental biology published between 1999 and 2005. Eight years after, the top five countries are still the same with England leading the pack, followed by Germany, France, The Netherlands and Italy. Altogether, ten countries kept their positions, while most others lost or won one or two spots. The highest climber is the Czech Republic, ascending four spots, while Ireland shed the most feathers, falling from 15th to 18th place. When it comes to citations per article, Austria cuts the best figure (30.3); Switzerland (29.8) and Germany (28.1) are close behind.

How does European developmental biology research compare to the rest of the world? Eight years ago, European developmental biologists had produced more articles than their US-American colleagues, 14,144 vs. 11,708. In 2013, the balance slightly tips in favour of US scientists, 31,402 vs. 32,770. Similarly to 2006, articles by US developmental biologists were cited more often than those written by Europeans.

What are now the topics? Embryonic development can be regulated in many ways; thus, when browsing the research interest list of our top heads, our eyes catch words like Wnt, sox, catenin and notch signalling pathways but also nuclear hormone receptors, microRNAs, imprinting, plant hormones and cell adhesion molecules. As said above, there’s a strong connection between developmental and cancer/pathology research, seven researchers work in this interdisciplinary cross-section. Among them our current number one, Hans Clevers, who has since jumped from his 2006 third place. Working on the Wnt signalling pathway, his research has driven him increasingly toward cancer, especially bowel cancer. His most highly-cited paper is, however, also about Wnt signalling during development.

Ten out of 30 in Germany

Another developmental biologist turned cancer biologist is Erwin Wagner (4th). When still researching in Vienna, he published many more papers on the role of the transcription factor complex AP-1 (Fos/Jun) during bone development. After relocating to Madrid in 2008 and joining the Cancer Cell Biology programme there, he appears to focus more on pathological processes like osteosarcoma, cancer and psoriasis.

One of the few plant developmental biologists and also one of the altogether ten scientists working at German institutions among the top 30 is Detlef Weigel (3rd). His group works on how microRNAs can regulate developmental processes in Arabidopsis thaliana. They found, for example, that the microRNAs miR156 and miR172 have a role in flowering.

In the UK, Wolf Reik (6th) and Wendy Dean (18th), who is a senior research scientist in Reik’s lab, are more interested in the epigenetic reprogramming during mammalian development. In primordial germ cells and the zygote, any epigenetic information like DNA methylation or histone marks needs to be erased to ensure proper development. This is done, for example, by deaminases and hydroxylases. Reik and Dean did one of the first genome-wide mapping studies of hydroxymethylation in embryonic stem cells to reveal “continuous reprogramming of methylation patterns in these pluripotent cells”.

Last but not least, also a former president of the French Society for Developmental Biology made our top 30. Margaret Buckingham (27th), who came to France in the early seventies, works on skeletal myogenesis and heart development, in particular she’s interested in the genes regulating these processes. Also, Giulio Cossu (28th) has successfully muscled in on our ranking. In 2002, he described a new mesenchymal-like cell in blood vessels, the meso­angioblasts, able to differentiate into “extravascular mesodermal tissues”.

Regardless of whether developmental biological studies will give new insights into animal or plant development, cancer biology, stem cell biology or cell biology; in the end it will always be a “WNT-WNT” situation for everyone.


View the Tables: Europe...and the World, Most Cited Authors...and Papers

View the Picture: Most Cited Authors





Last Changed: 07.02.2013




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