Ernest Everett Just, Johannes Holtfreter, and the origin of certain concepts in embryo morphogenesis


  • W. Malcolm Byrnes PhD

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Howard University College of Medicine, Washington, District of Columbia
    • 520 W Street, NW, Room 3430 Adams Building, Howard University College of Medicine, Washington, DC 20059.
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Ernest E. Just (1883–1941) is best known for his discovery of the “wave of negativity” that sweeps of the sea urchin egg during fertilization, and his elucidation of what are known as the fast and slow blocks to polyspermy. Just's contemporary Johannes Holtfreter (1901–1992) is known for his pioneering work in amphibian morphogenesis, which helped to lay the foundation for modern vertebrate developmental biology. This paper, after briefly describing the life and scientific contributions of Just, argues that his work and ideas strongly influenced two of the concepts for which Holtfreter is best known: tissue affinity and autoneuralization (or autoinduction). Specifically, this paper argues that, first, Just's experiments demonstrating developmental stage-specific changes in the adhesiveness of the blastomeres of cleavage embryos helped lay the foundation for Holtfreter's concept of tissue affinity and, second, Just's notion of the intrinsic irritability of the egg cell, which is evident in experimental parthenogenesis, strongly informed Holtfreter's concept of the nonspecific induction of neural tissue formation in amphibian gastrula ectoderm explants, a phenomenon known as autoinduction. Acknowledgment of these contributions by Just in no way diminishes the importance of Holtfreter's groundbreaking work. It does, however, extend the impact of Just's work into the area of embryo morphogenesis. It connects Just to Holtfreter and positions his work as an antecedent to embryo research that continues to this day. Mol. Reprod. Dev. 76: 912–921, 2009. © 2009 Wiley-Liss, Inc.