To Content Pane
small text size normal text size large text size
Start of main content

Dr. Richard J. ROBERTS

62nd Congregation (2005)

Dr. Richard J. ROBERTS
Doctor of Science

It is common knowledge that such things as our height, intelligence, even some of the diseases we are prone to, are very largely determined by our genes. Some of us may also know that these genes are located along the twisting double helical strands of the DNA molecule, the basic building block of all life. Up to the mid-1970s, it was thought that a gene was one single continuous segment of the DNA strand - until it was discovered that in higher organisms such as ourselves a gene can consist of several different segments that have to splice themselves together like pieces of edited movie film before they can pass on their information in the growth of new cells. This was a revolutionary discovery, because it allowed for the possibility that the splicing could take place in new patterns, thus creating new genes. Suddenly many of the puzzles that had been confronting scientists could be solved – such as the rapid evolution of higher organisms. Certain hereditary diseases could now be explained by errors in the splicing process, which may, for example, create faulty protein. Gene-splicing gave rise to such a new and fundamental understanding of genetic processes that the men who discovered it were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. One of these is the man we are honouring here this morning, Dr Richard Roberts. As a boy growing up in Bath, in the west of England, Richard Roberts had a passion for puzzles and at first wanted to be a detective. When his indulgent father built him a chemistry cabinet, this turned into a passion for experiments. Bored by rote learning, he excelled when his teachers caught his imagination by giving him problems to solve. One person to do this was his Professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of Sheffield, who became his PhD supervisor. Richard Roberts worked on some interesting compounds in the heartwood from a Brazilian tree and quickly had enough material for his thesis. This gave him two years in which to follow his other passion, reading. It was at this time he came across a book that changed his life – he became hooked on molecular biology. Fortunately Dr Roberts was able to do post-doctoral studies with Jack Strominger, who had just been appointed Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Harvard. Here he was given the job of sequencing some RNA, and after a trip to Cambridge in England he began using absolutely cutting-edge techniques that were new to the US. His sequencing was successful, which led to two papers in Nature – not a bad research performance for a post-doctoral fellow hardly thirty years of age! Soon Dr Roberts found himself recruited by James Watson, one of the discoverers of DNA. At Watson’s Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, Dr Roberts began to search for restriction enzymes, the essential tools for genetic engineering. One of his greatest achievements was his collection of new enzymes for cutting DNA. Three quarters of the world’s first restriction enzymes were discovered or characterized in his laboratory. In developing these tools, Dr Roberts not only advanced his own research but enabled the research of many others. In 1974, he began working on adenovirus, a germ causing common cold in humans. Because the virus infects the cells of higher organisms such as ourselves, its genome has many properties resembling our own cells, hence its importance in DNA research. It was in working on this virus that Dr Roberts and his team saw that the messenger RNA did not behave as predicted. As we might expect, the puzzle intrigued Dr Roberts and drew him into a historic piece of detective work. He began to suspect that different segments of the gene in question were located separately on the DNA helix. He then found the right experiment to demonstrate that this was so and was delighted when at last he could see split genes in the field of his electron microscope. The Nobel Prize winning research on gene splicing had begun to take shape. It was in sequencing adenovirus that Dr Roberts began to pioneer the use of computers as another essential tool in DNA research. Here too he paved the way for countless other researchers. At the same time, he saw the need for a company framework in which to manufacture restriction enzymes and to develop the computing power needed for gene sequencing and predicting the properties of new enzymes. He found the right environment for this work at New England Biolabs, where he moved in 1992 and where he is now Chief Scientific Officer. His work now focuses on generating and categorizing new restriction and modification enzymes, and studying how they work. He has one of the world’s best databases. Dr Roberts is at the top of the scientific supply chain, providing the essential tools for some of the basic medical and genetic research going on today – in biotechnology and medical sciences. Working for the benefit of others has been a consistent theme of Dr Roberts’ career. He has been generous in sharing his techniques with researchers from developing regions of the scientific world, such as Poland, Pakistan and China. He has promoted international exchange visits to his laboratory, enabling young researchers to return to their own countries to continue the work and to generate high-quality publications of their own. Setting the highest standards in his own work, Dr Roberts has been a model for others in his field. He is also a passionate believer in open access to scientific journals, publishing an article on the subject this year in Chemical and Engineering News (volume 83, pages 37-41). Though it has little to do with its core work, his company has set up a team to do applied research in the fields of vaccines and immunology to help combat diseases in third world countries. Dr Roberts has worked on numerous key international scientific advisory and editorial boards, academies of medicine and grant review committees. These include the Albert Schweitzer Academy of Medicine, the NASA Astrobiology Programme, the Oxford International Biomedical Centre and the International Council of Science. He is a member of many scientific associations and holder of many prestigious fellowships, including Fellowships of the Royal Society and the American Society for Arts and Sciences. He has held visiting professorships and lectureships at several important universities, including Princeton, Berkeley and Illinois. Apart from his Nobel Prize, he has been honoured with doctorates from the universities of Derby, Sheffield, Bath and Uppsala. Dr Roberts has been active in China. In 2004, he gave lectures at the World Hi Tech Forum, visited several universities and received an Honorary Professorship at the Fourth Military Medical University in Xian, as well as an Honorary Professorship at the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics. Recently Dr Roberts has been named Vice-Chairman of the International Science Advisory Board of James D Watson Institute of Genome Sciences, Hangzhou, a major centre for genome sequencing in China. Dr Roberts has a long association with The Chinese University of Hong Kong. He has been a visiting lecturer here and a keynote speaker in conferences and symposiums. In 1996, he was a Wei Lun Visiting Professor. More recently Dr Roberts has talked with students of the Molecular Biotechnology Programme on his life in scientific research. Tomorrow, he will provide two lectures, one on “Novel Ways of Finding New Restriction Enzymes” and another on “Friends and Foes: the Unseen Bugs Who Share Our Planet.” He has established close links with our Department of Biochemistry and the Molecular Biotechnology Programme, giving advice on the development of their academic and scientific programmes. Mr Chancellor, it is my honour to present to you Dr Richard J Roberts, one of the most important microbiologists of our time, for the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.