Baylor College of Medicine
Dr. Bellen is also a professor in the Department of Molecular and Human Genetics and the Department of Neuroscience and director of the Program in Developmental Biology at Baylor College of Medicine.
Hugo Bellen's research interests include (1) neuronal communication and maintenance, (2) development of tools to control transcript and protein levels in adult neurons to assess which proteins are required for neuronal function and survival, and (3) the creation of genome-wide libraries to manipulate genes in vivo. His lab uses Drosophila melanogaster as a model system because most biological processes are evolutionarily conserved and studies in fruit flies provide many important clues about the aging process in animals and humans.
Hugo Bellen spent many vacations fly fishing in the Scottish Highlands with his parents and friends before moving to the United States, where flies became a turning point in his life and career path.
Bellen was born in Belgium, where he obtained a masters in business engineering at the Solvay School of Business at the University of Brussels. After working in vineyards and wineries for a brief period in the south of France, he started research in mathematical economics at the University of Antwerp. Not long after, he enrolled as a student in veterinary medicine, obtaining his DVM degree from the University of Ghent.
"I became really interested in genetics in vet school when I took my first genetics course from Jules Leroy, a superb teacher. Upon graduating as a vet, I decided to pursue a PhD in genetics at the University of California, Davis. I was fortunate to be recruited by John Kiger, who ran a very small Drosophila lab focused on the role of cAMP in development."
Bellen brought the discipline, expertise, and expansive curiosity that he had cultivated from his earlier pursuits to UC Davis, where he quickly found his life's calling: fruit fly genetics. After graduation he joined the lab of Walter Gehring in Basel, Switzerland, as a postdoctoral fellow. Here he helped develop a technique that allows scientists to easily isolate genes based on their expression pattern in flies. After seeing the power of the methodology and its implications for research, he became invested in the development of new technologies.
Research conducted in the Bellen lab has increased our understanding of fruit fly neurobiology by characterizing genes used in the development of the peripheral and central nervous systems and genes used in nerve cell communication. The majority of the lab's current research focuses on the mechanisms by which neurons maintain their proper function in aging and how neuronal degeneration is induced in certain neurological conditions.
Bellen and his colleagues have developed technologies and reagents that have been used by hundreds of laboratories. These include the enhancer detector methodology developed while he was in the Gehring lab. The Bellen lab developed a new transgenic strategy, P[acman], that permits the manipulation of DNA in bacteria via recombineering and allows the insertion of transgenes up to 250 kb. This allowed the lab to create a library of transformation-ready P[acman] clones to rescue almost every mutant in Drosophila. The lab has produced more than 15,000 transposable element insertion stocks that permit mutational analysis of nearly 10,000 genes. Their most recent contribution has been to develop MiMIC, a new transposable element that permits tagging of genes/proteins in vivo.
Reflecting on his experiences in business, econometrics, veterinary medicine, and genetics, Bellen says, "My background in engineering and business has driven me to try to be pragmatic and efficient, my training in veterinary school has provided me with an expanded memory and the insight that organs function in a context, my PhD in genetics imprinted the power of in vivo biology, while the thrills of fishing have driven the excitement of fishing for new genes throughout my career. Above all, I very much enjoy working with students and postdocs whose independence and drive are pivotal to the success of our research."