Prof. Denis Duboule

Prof. Denis Duboule

Monday, 7 May 2018 at 18:00
Print Media Academy, Kurfürsten-Anlage 52-60, Heidelberg

Kindly supported by Manfred Lautenschläger Stiftung

Professor Denis Duboule, Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne

The Human Genome; a promise or a constraint for the future?


Ever since the first release of the human genome sequence in 2001, our knowledge of both the structure and function of our chromosomes has increased exponentially. Today, we are close to being in a position to use this knowledge and the accompanying technology to modify our own genetic material, these ‘...good old chromosomes, which haven’t changed much since Cro-magnon’, as stated by Jean Rostand in the late 1950’s. There are two distinct, though somewhat related frameworks where such potential modifications are currently being discussed and where various justifications are being formalized and put forward into the public domain. The first has to do with ‘precision medicine’, i.e. the possibility to use our genetic material as one of the major parameters, either to cure or to predict diseases. The second and perhaps more controversial context is that of trans-humanism, i.e. to try to move towards a novel human being (homo novus), as a result of genetic modifications along with technological assistance. In both cases, these future developments raise important questions and understandable concerns within our society, in particular regarding ethical and legal issues. In the meantime, and partly as a consequence of these valid societal questions, the critical scientific items underlying these potential advances are difficult to address in a rational context. Yet the discussions as to whether such future developments are consistent with our values, whether they are desirable or even necessary would likely be enriched by asking in parallel the questions related to the actual possibilities and feasibility of such approaches, i.e. to what extent our genome can either be interrogated to anticipate pathological states, or be modified to potentially improve human performances. From this utilitarian viewpoint, an important question is whether the increasing knowledge of our genetic material, its origin and its functioning make these new steps more or less likely to occur in a foreseeable future.


Denis Duboule is born in 1955 and is both Swiss and French national. He studied biology at the university of Geneva, where he obtained a PhD in mammalian embryology in 1984. He was then a group leader in the medical faculty in Strasbourg (1984-1988) and subsequently at the European Laboratory for Molecular Biology (EMBL; 1988-1993). He was appointed full professor at the University of Geneva, where he chaired the department of Genetics and Evolution from 1997 till 2017. In 2001, he chaired the national center of research ‘Frontiers in Genetics’ and from 2012 to 2014 the Medical and Biology section of the Swiss National Research Foundation. In 2006, he was appointed full professor at the federal institute of technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, where he leads the laboratory of Developmental Genomics. Since 2017, he is also Professor at the Collège de France in Paris.

His research activities are in the fields of embryology, genetics and developmental genomics of mammals, in an evolutionary context. In particular, his laboratory has been closely associated with initial structural and functional studies of mammalian Hox genes, by using mouse molecular genetic approaches. Duboule is also active in the public outreach and communication of science and was a columnist in the Swiss newspaper Le Temps. He is member of the Academia Europea as well as of academies in Switzerland, France and the Netherland. He is a foreign member of the Royal Society (UK) and of the National Academy of Sciences USA. He has received various scientific prizes and awards, amongst which the Marcel Benoist Prize, the Louis-Jeantet prize for medicine in 1998 or the international INSERM prize in 2010 (see also