The thrill of scientific discovery

Sir Richard Roberts, Nobel laureate and Distinguished University Professor, gives the keynote address at the Advanced DNA Sequencing Technology Development Meeting of the National Human Genome Research Institute, which was hosted by Northeasern this week. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Sir Richard Roberts, Nobel laureate and Distinguished University Professor at Northeastern, loves bacteria. As he puts it, “I find humans too complicated.” There is however, an important connection between humans and bacteria, he said: we couldn’t survive without them.

Roberts, a globally recognized leader in genomics and molecular biology, studies the mechanisms by which bacteria resist phages—viruses that target bacteria. Restriction enzymes, he says, are a key part of bacteria’s defense against infecting organisms.

But what holds Roberts’ particular interest these days are the biological effects of methylation, a mechanism cells use to control gene expression. According to Roberts, there is a lot more DNA methylation taking place in bacteria than we have good biological explanations for.

“I have a feeling that there is an important discovery to be made here, and I’m kind of hoping that I’m the one to make it,” Roberts said Wednesday afternoon in his keynote address at this year’s Advanced DNA Sequencing Technology Development Meeting of the National Human Genome Research Institute. Northeastern hosted the meeting, which was held this week in East Village and co-organized by Meni Wanunu, associate professor of physics and chemistry and chemical biology in the College of Science.

The institute’s annual meeting provides an open forum on key scientific and technical challenges to ultra-low-cost, high-quality DNA sequencing. The meeting draws leading researchers worldwide across many disciplines—from physics, chemistry, and biology to engineering and nanotechnology—to learn about the latest research on genome sequencing technologies, share knowledge, and pursue new collaborations.

In his keynote, Roberts shared his past research and what continues to drive him today. His contributions over the years include major advancements that led to the gene sequencing technologies relied upon today. In the 1970s he realized that molecules called restriction enzymes, which cut DNA into smaller pieces, could make sequencing a more accessible possibility. That work led to his discovery of split genes, sequences of DNA that contain both expressed and non-expressed material. That research, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1993, has profoundly changed the world’s understanding of animal life and started a revolution in molecular biology and genetic engineering.

Roberts, who joined Northeastern in 2014, is president of the Ocean Genome Legacy, a marine DNA repository located at the university’s Marine Science Center in Nahant, Massachusetts. He is the chief scientific officer at New England Biolabs, the world-renowned genomics research company that established OGL.