Q&A with Sir Richard J. Roberts
By Maxim Tamarov, News Staff
The News interviewed Sir Richard John Roberts, College of Science’s new distinguished professor. Roberts, originally from Derby, England, won a Nobel prize in physiology or medicine in 1993.
Roberts is the chief scientific officer at New England Biolabs; Donald Comb, board chairman at the Biolabs and creator of the Ocean Genome Legacy (OGL), a nonprofit marine science research organization that will now join Northeastern’s Marine Science Center.
Huntington News: I heard you wanted to be a detective.
RR: Well I did. And I ended up being one as far as I can see. Just not what I envisioned when I was 10 or 11.
HN: I know it was a really long time ago, but what made you switch from wanting to be a detective to being a chemist?
RR: Basically fireworks, is the answer to that.
RR: When I was 10 or 11, my father bought me a chemistry set for Christmas. It was just an ordinary primitive chemistry set. It had an instruction booklet but it had a bunch of interesting chemicals. I did all the experiments. I discovered I really liked doing all of the experiments. So then I started to read a little more about it and I got a book called ‘Chemistry Experiments for Boys and Girls.’ It included all sorts of things. It told how to make fireworks. And that seemed to me very, very appealing. I’ve always liked fireworks — I still do. Nothing I like better than a good fireworks display. So I went down and got a hold of the chemicals that were needed to make fireworks. My father was very helpful. I don’t think he realized what I was doing…
HN: Probably not.
RR: … But he had a friend who [was] a local pharmacist. That pharmacist had access to all of the chemicals that were necessary. My father or I would go down and buy these things and then I got everything I needed to make fireworks.
HN: And this was all easily accessible back then?
RR: It was. Very easy access. It wasn’t a problem at all. When I talk to my Nobel colleagues, half of them got into science by making fireworks. And unfortunately now we don’t allow kids to do that. We start off with kids who are really curious about science — who would make excellent scientists. But we knock that curiosity out of them. We don’t let them pursue the curiosity. It’s tragic. And it’s all because of politicians who are busy trying to protect you from hazards. They think you will elect them if they tell you, ‘We will protect you from that risk.’ Life is a very risky thing.
HN: So you mentioned you liked watching fireworks too. How do you like the Boston ones?
RR: They’re very good. I went down a few times to watch them from the roof of the Science Museum, which is a very good vantage point.
HN: You can get to the roof?
RR: Yes. If you’re a member then you can get roof access. You sign up ahead of time and you can get access to the roof.
HN: That’s pretty cool. Can you tell me about the Ocean Genome Legacy? As far as I understand, it’s a collection of all the DNA of all the animal species in the world’s oceans. Right?
RR: Well … It’s not yet. But we would like it to be. Of course it’s possible that it will never be. Because much of marine life was endangered and you didn’t know how long these would survive, it was a very good idea to start collecting the DNA from the endangered ones, so that at least if they became extinct we would still have DNA record of them. And then ultimately one might be able to recreate them. So at least you have the genes — we would not have lost them. Don Comb read this article and decided that was a very good idea … He put some of his own money into starting the OGL. Of course one of the problems is for the endangered species it can be tricky to get the permits for tissue sample, blood sample and DNA. But very often we can do that. We have agreements [with] the government of Australia, the Philippines, Bermuda and so on. In the last seven or eight years, many of the species you might not have thought were endangered turned out to be. So rather than just try to limit ourselves with endangered species, we tried to broaden the collection as widely as possible, because you never know what can become endangered. So that’s what we do. We’ve been doing that up here in Ipswich, but it was obvious that it was not the ideal environment. We’re close to the ocean, but we’re not right on the ocean. Also we don’t have the intellectual aspects for the marine environment, because our company is focused on something else. So we’ve been looking for a couple years to find a suitable home for OGL — one that would actually have a marine intellectual background. Northeastern was a much better option for us. It’s a university, there’s students, there’s faculty. Northeastern has a deep interest in marine sciences so we would be part of something.
HN: You have an honorary professorship. What does that imply you have to do?
RR: Universities have regular faculty that they pay and then they also have adjunct faculty. Those people, while being officially part of the university, may or may not have teaching duties. And then very often they will bring in people who they believe will add some prestige to the university. I think I’m on that category, and they called such people distinguished professors. They don’t really ask very much of them. They don’t pay them. But they have an association with the university.
HN: How did you become interested in marine science?
RR: I love the marine environment. I love to go snorkeling. When we got the OGL here — Don Comb put it up. He and I are very close. And so when he got to be a little older and wanted to step down. He asked me if I would take over as chairman of the board of trustees. I said fine. I’m happy to do so.
HN: So what are your goals with the OGL?
RR: There’s several things. One is we need to establish a decent sized endowment to support it, so that there is some guaranteed money coming in to make sure that at least the basic activities of the place continue no matter what. And then we will look for other funding in order to support special projects. The idea is not to put together not a general endowment controlled by Northeastern, but rather a specific endowment just for OGL. We’re going to raise some money for that, and Northeastern promised to raise some money for that. Between us we’re hoping to raise maybe $20 million. So then the next thing is we want to expand [is] the collection. We will do that in a number of ways. For instance, we’re talking with the government of Malaysia who are very interested in working with this and providing samples and setting up their own collection of samples, but then making sure that we also get mirror samples, so that anything they have, we will end up with.
HN: I was wondering if the OGL has any DNA that’s already extinct?
RR: Not that we know of. It typically takes about 100 years before you can be sure that something is extinct.
HN: Right. They discovered that megalodon (sic) shark after they thought it was extinct?
RR: The coelacanth was the best example. It had been thought to be extinct for many hundreds of years. Then suddenly a fisherman off Madagascar caught one.
HN: Wow. So if a species does go extinct, there’s a possibility of cloning it to make it not extinct?
RR: There’s every possibility. At the moment, for instance, we know how to do that with some bacteria. But I’m sure that as we get better and better at doing that sort of thing, we would be able to do it for higher organisms too.
HN: That’s really cool. That sounds like Jurassic Park almost.
RR: Yeah. That’s what it is. Whether you would want to do it — that’s a whole new question. You may not want to. As we get better and learn more about biology, we will be able to.
HN: That’s so cool. I was actually really inspired by that book.
RR: It’s a good movie. I didn’t read the book.
HN: So what is New England Biolabs (NEB) working on?
RR: Basically, NEB is a company that makes reagents for research, We sell our reagents to Northeastern and to universities around the world. Most of the reagents are enzymes, or DNA or RNA. They’re all molecular biology related. In addition to that, we do quite a lot of research. The philosophy of the company is that we would make money by selling products, but we would use a good portion of the profits in order to support research.
HN: Any particular directions you guys are going in?
RR: Methylation. We know that it’s important in higher organisms. It’s called epigenetics. There’s quite a lot of stuff that’s not included in the genome but you gain from your parents. There’s a much wider range of methylation that take place in prokaryotes. Just a couple of years ago a new sequencing system came out in bioscience which allows you to study methylation and to know where the methyl groups are. We’ve been using to try to take a look at the genes responsible for methylation so that we understand why they methylate whatever they methylate.
HN: What exactly is epigenetics?
RR: Epigenetics refers to traits that are not passed in a strictly Mendelyian fashion by being encoded in the DNA. If you just replicate DNA there is no methylation. The methylation comes along later, and that changes gene expression.
HN: So it’s basically just a mutation?
RR: It’s not a mutation. It’s a post-replicative chemical modification. Mutation is something that happens in the germ cell.
HN: Were you thinking of coming to the university at all to speak?
RR: I’m sure I’ll get invited at some point. I don’t have any specific plans.
HN: Well we look forward to seeing you if you ever do come. This research is pretty fascinating.