Prof. Neil Shubin discusses the story and science behind finding ‘missing link’ fossils

Scholar who discovered Tiktaalik roseae delivers Ryerson Lecture on 'Finding Your Inner Fish'

In his 2021 Nora and Edward Ryerson Lecture, entitled “Finding Your Inner Fish: Fossils, Genes and the History of Life,” Prof. Neil Shubin explained the story and science behind his groundbreaking 2004 discovery of Tiktaalik roseae—a transitional form of animal between water- and land-dwelling vertebrates.

While recalling his own academic journey, Shubin described a paradigm shift that brought together the once highly distinct fields of paleontology, geology and genetics, and which continues to motivate Shubin’s own research questions.

The Robert R. Bensley Distinguished Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago, Shubin first learned of the gap between water and land vertebrate fossils as an undergraduate student. Thrilled by this knowledge, he went on to train and work as a paleontologist, eventually embarking on the many-year search with his team for the so-called “missing link.” Meanwhile, geneticists studying fruit flies were revealing relationships between genes and anatomy, which would ultimately shed light on the mechanisms underlying the transition from fish to land animals. These discoveries continue to inform research in areas such as wound healing and limb regeneration, which could lead to new treatments for injury and disease.

A prestigious tradition celebrating the scholarly work of a UChicago faculty member, the Ryerson Lecture this year took place in the David M. Rubenstein Forum in front of a small, in-person audience while being streamed online. The lecture was preceded by an introduction from President Robert J. Zimmer, and followed by questions from both in-person and online audiences, as well as remarks from Kenneth Polonsky, dean of the Biological Sciences Division, and Ryerson (now Ranney) family members, Alison Ranney and Ben Ranney.