Science passion is in the DNA of ‘Gene Genie’ Sir

'Great city': Sir Richard Roberts returns to the University of Sheffield.                        pictures: SARAH WASHBOURN
'Great city': Sir Richard Roberts returns to the University of Sheffield. pictures: SARAH WASHBOURN
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SIR Richard Roberts, one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century, is under pressure from his wife.

“She wants me to win the Nobel Prize again,” he says. “They very rarely give it to someone twice but she insists. She had a nice day last time, and she’d like another.”

The irony, he adds, “She switches off every time I talk about science.”

Such, it seems, are the tribulations of a man – a Knight Bachelor no less, and a proud honorary Sheffielder – who quite literally changed the whole understanding of the human body one Tuesday morning in 1977.

We’ll get to that shortly.

Today this 69-year-old they call the Gene Genie is sat in the city’s Mercure Hotel. It’s 4pm. He’s drinking wine and doing a sudoko. He never leaves home without one in his pocket. “I love puzzles,” he says.

He’s back in Sheffield – the city in which he spent six years in the Sixties learning his craft – because he likes to return once a year. He lives in New York now but he still loves this place. When he arrived in 1962, he was a teenager who’d needed two goes to pass his physics A-level. When he left he was a young man with a degree (second class), a PhD, and many of the skills needed to change scientific understanding forever. Now he has a Sheffield University building named after him, sits on the board of the city’s Krebs Institute research centre, and is chairman of the fundraising body University Of Sheffield In America.

“You can’t live here, and not be affected,” he says. “It was - and is - a great city to be a student.”

He doesn’t give many interviews but he’s agreed to talk to The Star to mark the 20th anniversary year of being awarded that (first) Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1993.

Understanding the defining experiments and discovery which won him the honour isn’t always easy for non-scientists. Explaining them is even harder. Technically, it requires a working knowledge of words like ‘introns’, ‘eukaryotic DNA’, and ‘Adenovirus-2 mRNA’.

But, in essence, what Sir Richard did was discover and then prove that the organisation of DNA in more advanced organisms - the building block of human life - was fundamentally different to what scientists had previously believed. It led almost instantly to a deeper understanding of molecular biology and has allowed greater research into the development of several diseases.

The extent of its genius was such that on the very afternoon the work was revealed to the world the science community started talking about a Nobel Prize.

“How did I do it?” he ponders. “I’m smart.”

How did it feel?

“It felt good.”

It was the culmination of an obsession that started with a chemistry set his father bought him when he was 12. That was in Bath where the family had moved after Sir Richard was born in Derbyshire.

The experiment set encouraged his love of science and after completing his A-Levels he came to Sheffield University (“because it had one of the two best departments in the country”). From here - where he lived in Granville Road, Ecclesall Road and Hunter’s Bar - he went on to do post-doctorate work at Harvard University, Massachusetts, before becoming a research scientist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, in New York City.

There he began to map DNA, the process which would eventually lead to his defining discovery.

“I remember my postdoctoral student doing an experiment and coming back with results that were impossible,” says Sir Richard, who today is the chief scientific officer with New England Biolabs. “I said go back and do it again. And he did. And he came back with the same results. So I said I’d do it myself, and they were the same still.”

That was in 1976, and it was the start of his realisation that certain genes were fundamentally different to what was assumed. The divergence, as Sir Richard would prove, was that the genes within human DNA were not one long strand but several segments.

“Back then, that was almost a heretical idea,” says the father-of-four and grandfather-of-three. “Scientists tend to be conservative and if there are findings that don’t fit with accepted theories, they will question the findings rather than the theories. I was sure we had it right then but proving it was another matter.”

He and partner Richard Gelinas hit on a way of providing visual proof one Saturday morning. “I don’t know how it came to me,” he says. “We were in the lab talking things through and it popped into my head.”

They spent the rest of the weekend preparing, and their colleagues Louise Chow and Tom Broker carried out the experiment on the Tuesday morning. By the end of that day, they were accepted as among the greatest scientists of their generation. Sir Richard was 33.

“Scientists who discover things tend to be younger,” he shrugs. “Their minds are still more inquisitive, still more probing.”

Since then he’s carried on his probing firstly at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where he met second wife Jean and, since 1992, at New England Biolabs.

He was knighted in 2008.

“I’m in love with DNA,” he says. “If people didn’t pay me to do this stuff, I’d do it anyway. I love it.”

How often, we wonder, does he think of enzymes, chemical reactions and DNA when he’s not in the labs? “I’m thinking about it right now,” he answers. “One of the great things about doing my PhD in Sheffield was I’d finished most of the research I needed to by the first year but I had to stay for three years. That gave me two years to fool about in the labs, look into things, learn. When I discover something I like, it becomes an obsession for me.”

And for that reason he doesn’t see himself retiring just yet. He has more research to do - and, of course, his wife to please. Can he win a second Nobel Prize? “We’re working on some big stuff at the moment,” he says smiling. “Of course I’d love to make another discovery. You never lose that passion.”

Defining discovery

SO, what precisely did Sir Richard Roberts do to win a Nobel Prize?

The science answer is he discovered the existence of introns in eukaryotic DNA and the mRNA splicing.

In English? He proved for the first time that genes in complex DNA (such as that found in humans) were presented not as a single, continuous strand but rather, as several, well-separated segments.

This allowed for a far greater understanding of DNA than had previously been possible, paved the way for a deeper knowledge of molecular biology and was vital in research into several diseases.

Inspired by his adopted city

SIR Richard Roberts came to Sheffield because the university had the best chemistry department In the country. And while here he says he was hugely inspired by David Ollis, the then professor of organic chemistry.

But he also spent plenty of time away from the laboratories and lecture halls.

“There was a new students union,” he remembers. “And I perhaps spent a little too much time there. And being so close to the countryside was fine.”

He lived in Granville Road (where he shared with three other students), then Ecclesall Road and finally Hunter’s Bar.

He married his first wife Elizabeth Dyson - a student from Swinton - while he was here, and even worked in the steel industry, at Steel, Peech & Tozer in Templeborough. “I needed cash during the summer and they needed cleaners while the factory was shut down for a fortnight,” he says.

In 2005, a multimillion pound expansion of Sheffield University’s chemistry department was named after him.