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Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, Ph.D.

California Institute of Technology


Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz is a Polish/British biologist who is Bren Professor of Biology and Biological Engineering at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, CA and Professor of Development and Stem Cells at the University of Cambridge, UK. She is also a Wellcome Trust Investigator and Sidney Sussex Fellow in Cambridge. She received her Ph.D. in Mammalian Embryology from the University of Warsaw with Andrzej Tarkowski and her post-doctoral training in Embryonic Stem Cell Biology at the University of Cambridge with Nobel Laureates Martin Evans and John Gurdon. For the first 20 years of her career, Zernicka-Goetz’s research focused on early mouse embryo patterning and cell fate specification. She was first to reveal that cells within the early mouse embryo are not identical but differ in their developmental potential and to apply RNAi to investigate genes directing the fate of individual cells spatially and temporally. She demonstrated that these difference are due to specific epigenetic mechanisms that regulate cell fate choice. This work re-defined ways of thinking about the earliest events that govern cell fate specification in the mammalian embryo. In parallel, she showed that karyotypically mosaic embryos succeed in development because aneuploid cells are eliminated by apoptosis and autophagy in the embryonic lineage but are tolerated in the extra-embryonic lineages. Beginning 10 years ago, Zernicka-Goetz expanded her research interest into human embryo development focusing on implantation, one of the most enigmatic developmental stages. She established systems to culture mouse and human embryos through and beyond the implantation stages and uncovered the molecular mechanisms of embryo remodelling at the blastocyst-to-gastrula transition. She applied this knowledge to assemble embryo-like structures from embryonic and extra-embryonic stem cells demonstrating the ability of these building blocks to self-assemble and self-organise. Together, this offers enormous potential for investigating gene regulatory networks controlling cell specification, pattern formation and morphogenesis during mammalian embryogenesis.

Zernicka-Goetz has trained over 50 post-doctoral fellows and Ph.D. students. She has been a recipient of continuous research support from the Wellcome Trust and holds an advanced ERC grant. Upon her move to the US in 2019, her support comes from the NIH and from the Open Philanthropy/Silicon Valley Foundation, the Shurl and Kay Curci Foundation, and the Weston Havens Foundation. She has published over 120 scientific paper and in 2020 published a biographical book “The Dance of Life” with Roger Highfield published by Penguin Random house in UK, Dunod in France and Basic Books in USA.  She is Member of the European Molecular Biology Organization, a Foreign Member of the Polish Academy of Science, a Foreign Member of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Fellow of British Academy of Medical Science. She received COGI and RBMO Awards in recognition of her lifetime contribution to reproductive medicine in 2018, the International Foundation IVI Award for the Best Basic Research in Reproductive Medicine in 2017, and was a Winner of the People’s Vote for the Scientific Breakthrough of the year 2016 by Science magazine. She has been named as one of the word’s top 50 thinkers for the Covid-19 age by Prospect magazine in 2020.

Science Programs at Allen Institute