2012 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Science
Sean B. Carroll, Ph.D.
Howard Hughes Medical Institute
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Sean B. Carroll receives the 2012 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Science for proposing and
demonstrating that the diversity and multiplicity of animal life is largely due to the different ways
that the same genes are regulated rather than to mutation of the genes themselves.
Evolution is the key principle guiding life on Earth, as fundamentally important to
biology as quantum theory is to physics. But although it’s universally accepted by scientists and
firmly established as the bedrock of life science, we are still learning the details of just how
evolution works, particularly at the basic genetic level. One approach to understanding evolution
compares different organisms to find the common genetic ancestry that governs their
developmental processes, thus revealing vital clues to the evolutionary origin and function of
those processes. This is a field known as evolutionary developmental biology, or more
commonly, “evo-devo.” Sean B. Carroll has emerged as the most visible and influential
researcher in evo-devo both among his own scientific colleagues and to the public at large.
When Carroll was still an undergraduate in biology at Washington University in St. Louis
in the 1970s, evolution was all about fossils: the remains of long-extinct animals and plants.
While their stories could be studied on the larger scale, as the revolution in molecular biology
took hold, it became possible to read the saga of life in much greater detail, at its most elemental
level—and to study how changes on that level ultimately manifest themselves in the full-scale
organism. It is upon this synergy between evolution at both its smallest and largest scales that
Sean Carroll focused, as he went on to earn his Ph.D. in immunology at Tufts University School
of Medicine, then did post-doctoral work at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Carroll’s work bridges the gap between evolution at the molecular level and at the
organismal level, synthesizing a new and powerful model from both. He approached the study
of evolution by looking at morphology and how body form and variation were influenced by
gene interactions and expression during development. He looked at the patterns of the markings
of butterfly wings and particularly the wing shapes and spots of the Drosophila fruit fly, noting
the genetic mechanisms that determine such variations and their implications for evolution. His
work has revealed how changes in gene regulation affect phenotypic expression and thus
evolution in general. Although his theories have sometimes been controversial in the
evolutionary biology community, that controversy has led not to discord but, in the true tradition
of scientific discourse, to more intensive and detailed research and the development of new ideas
and investigative avenues. He continues his groundbreaking research as a professor of molecular
biology and genetics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Also working as an investigator at the world-famous Howard Hughes Medical Institute,
one of Carroll’s most important roles is that of communicating science to the public, not just the
impact of his own work, but the significance of science to society as a whole. His best-selling
popular science books include Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo-Devo
and the Making of the Animal Kingdom (2005) and Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in
the Search for the Origin of Species (2009). He is also widely known as a charismatic and
effective media advocate for science, scientific literacy, and evolution, and appears regularly on
television, radio, and as a public speaker. His many awards reflect the range of his talents as
both a scientist and a science writer; not only is he a member of the National Academy of
Sciences and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, but he is the recipient of
various educational and literary honors, such as the Stephen Jay Gould Prize of the Society for
the Study of Evolution and a 2009 finalist for the National Book Award.
But even if he didn’t follow in the distinguished footsteps of past scientist-
communicators such as Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan, Sean Carroll would be renowned in any
case, as one of the 21st Century’s leading figures in evolutionary biology. He is a true
Renaissance man of science, at home whether in the laboratory performing cutting-edge research
or at a podium expounding to a rapt audience on the wondrous variety and versatility of life on