December 31, 2019 marks the retirement of Dr. Donald G. Moerman from the Department of Zoology at the University of British Columbia. Although this constitutes his official retirement, Dr. Moerman will continue running his research lab as an Emeritus Professor until 2021. Dr. Moerman has been an important member of the department and a vital member of the department’s Cell Biology subgroup. Dr. Moerman holds a Bachelor of Science and a Doctor of Philosophy in Biology from Simon Fraser University, Burnaby BC. He was a Medical Research Council of Canada (now the CIHR)-funded Post-Doctoral Fellow, Research Associate, and Research Assistant Professor in the Genetics Department at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO, the latter until 1987. In 1987 he was recruited to the Department of Zoology as an Assistant Professor, and he progressed through the ranks to Full Professor in 1999. Dr. Moerman received a UBC Killam Faculty Research Fellowship in 1994-95, and was a Canadian Institutes For Advanced Research (CIFAR) Fellow from 2006-2010 and 2011-2018.
Dr. Moerman’s highly successful research program has two distinct parts, which both take advantage of the genetic power of the model organism, C. elegans. The first focused on understanding muscle. His work centered on the roles of pivotal muscle proteins myosin, twitchin, titin, perlecan, and the kindlins, using classical structure and function analyses to understand their role in muscle development and function. In addition, he studied the organization of the genes that encode these proteins, and their expression patterns during C. elegans development. This work also allowed for the discovery and use of the transposon, tc1, which in its time, was a powerful genetic tool for the generation and identification of C. elegans mutants. The second part of Dr. Moerman’s work is in the field of functional genomics. He remains the Director of the C. elegans knockout facility in Vancouver, and is part of an international collaboration to identify key knockouts in defined sets of genes in the worm. Dr. Moerman was one of the first to optimize Crispr/Cas gene-editing approaches for use in the worm, as well as one of the first at UBC to take advantage of cutting-edge, high-throughput DNA approaches. This knockout project was initiated with the support of Dr. Michael Smith and the Michael Smith Labs. Later, the Vancouver Knockout Facility expanded to become part of the Million Mutation Project, in collaboration with a number of labs in the USA.
Dr. Moerman’s independent research has been continuously funded, since 1987. Research grants were obtained from NSERC, the MRC, CIHR, the Heart and Stroke Foundation, Genome Canada, CCSRI, NHGRI, and the National Institutes of Health USA (NIH), with NIH funding continuing until 2021. The impact of Dr. Moerman’s work is reflected in more than 125 total publications, with 8506 citations, appearing in journals like Cell, PNAS, Nature, Genetics, Development, Genes & Development, J of Cell Biology, MBOC, Current Biol, Nature Biotechnology, Nature Methods, PLoS Biol, Science, Develop Cell, G3. The Moerman Lab has contributed hundreds of mutated and knockout worm strains to the C. elegans Stock Centre, an essential research source for the international worm community.
Dr. Moerman has been involved in undergraduate and graduate education at all levels. A major accomplishment was in the early 1990s, the establishment of the first molecular biology undergraduate teaching lab, in collaboration with the Biotechnology Labs, then directed by Dr. Michael Smith. Dr. Moerman was also involved in the revision of various upper level Genetics and Developmental Genetics courses, and the establishment of genomics lectures for these courses, as part of updating their learning objectives in the Biology Program. He was also involved in the development of an essential entry-level Graduate course in Cell Biology that now serves ZOOL department graduate trainees, as well as those in the Graduate Program in Cell and Developmental Biology, an interdisciplinary program that takes students from the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Medicine. Dr. Moerman has also made significant contributions to the training and mentoring of a large number of graduate students (8 PhD and 10 MSc), and postdoctoral fellows/research associates (12), many of whom have advanced onto careers in academia and industry. He has also mentored and trained a significant number of undergraduate students, Co-op students and technicians, 58 total, either in his research lab or in the C. elegans Knockout Facility. Dr. Moerman has been instrumental in the mentoring of new faculty in ZOOL, as well as new faculty in the larger C. elegans research community, and this continues currently in our department.
Dr. Moerman’s involvement in important strategic research initiatives for overarching interests in functional genomics, and stewardship of important initiatives for the C. elegans research community are lasting legacies. As mentioned, this includes the initiation in 1999 of the Vancouver node of the C. elegans Knockout Facility, membership in the Canadian Institutes for Advanced Research (Genetic Networks), a project on expression profiling in C. elegans, and involvement in 2010 with the Million Mutation Project, a consortium that includes major US labs working together for the benefit of the international C. elegans community.
Dr. Moerman’s contributions within the department and university have been important and the impact will be felt in our undergraduate and graduate training programs in the areas of genetics, genomics and cell biology for years to come. Similarly, Dr. Moerman’s contributions to our understanding of muscle development, and the use of genetic and genomic tools for the benefit of the C. elegans community, set a paradigm for how a simple model organism, the worm, with powerful genetic approaches, can reveal startling insights into genomic organization, gene regulation, and the structure and function of a number of proteins. This work was based on the key development and use of tools and approaches that allow for the dissection of fundamental mechanisms of the biological processes that the organism undergoes. The Department of Zoology wishes Dr. Moerman all the best as he becomes Emeritus, and extends its gratitude for his dedication to teaching, mentoring and support for his trainees and colleagues.