Professor Raff was a pioneer in the new discipline of evolutionary developmental biology, which recognized that evolutionary changes in body form take place from generation to generation through modifications of the process of embryonic development. He sought to understand the large scale and dramatic evolutionary changes that take place in animal structure over geological time. Raff's research concentrated on the use of gene sequence data to understand relationships among animal body plans, and on the study of the evolution of development, using marine embryos as experimental systems. He discovered that early development is subject to unexpected and rapid evolution. He and his students demonstrated changes in regulatory gene function that underlie rapid evolution in developmental processes, and the role of gene co-option in the evolution of novel features. These studies contributed to an understanding of the mechanisms by which developing systems evolve.
Professor Raff received a B.S. from the Pennsylvania State University in biochemistry in 1963, and a Ph.D. from Duke University in biochemistry in 1967. He served in the U.S. Navy as a Lieutenant, stationed at the National Naval Medical Center from 1967 to 1969. He was an American Cancer Society postdoctoral fellow in developmental biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1969 to 1971. He joined the Zoology Department (later Biology) at Indiana University in 1971. Raff founded the Indiana Molecular Biology Institute in 1983, and served as its director.
Professor Raff's honors include a National Institutes of Health Research Career Development Award (1975-1980), a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1987, election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2000, the Alexander Kowalevski Medal of the Saint Petersburg Society of Naturalists in 2001, the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal of the US National Academy of Sciences in 2004, and the Sewall Wright Award of the American Society of Naturalists in 2004. He was instructor-in-chief of the Embryology Course at the Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole from 1980 to 1982. He was active on numerous national committees and journal editorial boards, and was editor-in-chief of the new journal Evolution and Development. Raff published four books. The latest was The Shape of Life (1996), which presents a synthesis of the relationship between evolutionary and developmental biology. He was named Distinguished Professor in 2002.