Dr. Sir Richard J. Roberts

Nobel Laureate for Medicine at New England Biolabs in Ipswich/USA, November 2023


Dr. Sir Richard John Roberts is the Chief Scientific Officer at New England Biolabs in Massachusetts/USA, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1993 for his discoveries of split genes and mRNA splicing. These discoveries completely changed the way biologists thought about genes and led to decisive progress in many fields including cancer research.

Previously, based on studies of bacterial DNA, biologists believed that genes consisted of unbroken stretches of DNA, all of which encoded protein structure. It has since been established that the discontinuous gene structure discovered by Dr. Roberts is the most common structure found in higher organisms (eukaryotes). In addition to having important implications for the study of genetic diseases this structure is believed to drive evolution by allowing information from different parts of the gene to be brought together in new combinations.

Richard J. Roberts was educated in England, attending St. Stephen’s School and the City of Bath Boys’ School in Bath before moving to the University of Sheffield where he obtained a B.Sc. in Chemistry in 1965 and a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry in 1968. His postdoctoral research was carried out in Prof. J.L. Strominger’s laboratory at Harvard, where he studied the tRNAs that are involved in the biosynthesis of bacterial cell walls. A stay as a guest in Cambridge (GB) with Dr. Frederick Sanger (who in 1980 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the second time) directed him to the “technique” of RNA sequencing, and he succeeded in exactly determining the individual nucleotides within some tRNA molecules, beginning a passion for nucleic acid sequences. 

From 1972 to 1992 Dr. Roberts worked at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, reaching the position of Assistant Director for Research under Dr. J.D. Watson. He began work on the newly discovered Type II restriction enzymes in 1972, and in the next few years more than 100 such enzymes were discovered and characterized in Dr. Roberts’ laboratory. His laboratory has cloned the genes for several restriction enzymes and their cognate methylases, and studies of these enzymes have been a major research theme.

Dr. Roberts has also been involved in studies of Adenovirus-2, beginning with studies of transcription that led to the discovery of split genes and mRNA splicing in 1977. This was followed by efforts to deduce the DNA sequence of the Adenovirus-2 genome, and a complete sequence of 35,937 nucleotides was obtained. This latter project required the extensive use of computer methods, both for the assembly of the sequence and its subsequent analysis. His laboratory pioneered the application of computers in this area, and the further development of computer methods of protein and nucleic acid sequence analysis continues to be a major research focus.

The field of DNA methyltransferases is also an area of Dr. Roberts’ active research interest, and crystal structures for the HhaI methyltransferase both alone and in complex with DNA have been obtained in collaboration with Dr. X. Cheng.  The latter complex is remarkable as the protein causes the target cytosine base to flip completely out of the helix so that it is accessible for chemical reaction. This extreme, but elegant distortion of the double helix had not been seen previously. A major interest of Dr. Roberts at present is the semi-automatic identification of restriction enzyme and methylase genes within the GenBank database and the development of rapid methods to assay their function.  Most recently his studies have focused on DNA methyltransferases thanks to the advent of a new technique, PacBio sequencing, which permits the simple discovery of recognition sequences for methylases. Hundreds of new specificities have been found as well as many enzymes that are not part of restriction systems.  It seems clear that DNA methylases play a much larger role in bacteria than is currently known. Bacteria are engaging in epigenetics in ways that remain to be discovered.

Dr. Roberts is a Member of the Advisory Board of the International Peace Foundation since 2004, and he was knighted by King Charles III (The Prince of Wales at the time) in 2008. Most recently he has become one of the leaders of the COMBREX project that aims to connect computational biologists with experimental biochemists to find the function of novel genes. Bioinformatic studies of microbial genomes to find new restriction systems remain a major research focus as is the elucidation of DNA methyltransferase recognition sequences using SMRT sequencing. The latter is revealing that bacteria are far more sophisticated in their use of DNA methylation than had previously been suspected.

Topics of keynote speeches:
  • The path to the Nobel Prize
  • Spreading peace through science and commerce in emerging economies
  •  Why you should love bacteria 

Monday, November 13, 2023:

14:00  Public keynote speech and dialogue at Ramkhamhaeng University in Bangkok
– Further information and free seat reservation: phone 095-642-8620, email boon-ek.y@rumail.ru.ac.th (www.ru.ac.th)

Wednesday, November 15, 2023:

14:00  Public keynote speech and dialogue at Prince of Songkla University in Songkla
– Further information and free seat reservation: phone 074-446-824, email psu-international@psu.ac.th (www.psu.ac.th)