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Nobel Laureate joins Northeastern faculty

by Angela Herring

Sir Richard Roberts, a Nobel Lau­reate and glob­ally rec­og­nized leader in genomics and mol­e­c­ular biology, has joined North­eastern Uni­ver­sity as a Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Sci­ence.

Roberts received the Nobel Prize in 1993 for his dis­covery of split genes, sequences of DNA that con­tain both expressed and non-​​expressed mate­rial, research that pro­foundly changed the world’s under­standing of animal life and started a rev­o­lu­tion in mol­e­c­ular biology and genetic engi­neering. His appoint­ment coin­cides with the relo­ca­tion of the marine DNA repos­i­tory Ocean Genome Legacy to Northeastern’s Marine Sci­ence Center in Nahant, Mass.

“Our oceans pro­vide the next fron­tier in global sci­en­tific dis­covery,” said Joseph E. Aoun, pres­i­dent of North­eastern Uni­ver­sity. “Wel­coming Sir Richard Roberts to our fac­ulty, and the Ocean Genome Legacy to North­eastern, are instru­mental in advancing our lead­er­ship in marine sci­ence and urban coastal research.”

OGL is a non­profit envi­ron­mental research orga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to pro­moting new methods for the study and con­ser­va­tion of marine species through DNA preser­va­tion and analysis. Roberts is chief sci­en­tific officer at New Eng­land Bio­labs, the genomics research com­pany that estab­lished OGL. Founded by Donald Comb, a renowned mol­e­c­ular biol­o­gist who also serves as chairman of the board, New Eng­land Bio­labs is a world leader in the dis­covery, devel­op­ment, and com­mer­cial­iza­tion of recom­bi­nant and native enzymes for genomic research.

At its new home at North­eastern, OGL will be a resource to uncover some of our ocean’s deepest mys­teries and reveal genomic infor­ma­tion that can help cure dis­eases, pro­tect the envi­ron­ment, and improve the sus­tain­ability of global food and energy supplies.

“The aim of OGL is to cap­ture bio­log­ical mate­rial from all marine species, and make it avail­able for research to better the world,” said J. Murray Gibson, founding dean of the Col­lege of Sci­ence. “OGL is a cen­ter­piece of our strategy for global expe­ri­en­tial learning—students will travel the world to build the col­lec­tion, and be involved in state-​​of-​​the art mol­e­c­ular biology learning from, and we hope helping to pre­serve, the wealth of bio­di­ver­sity in the oceans.”

An inter­na­tional leader in genomics and mol­e­c­ular biology, Roberts’ con­tri­bu­tions also include major advance­ments that led to the gene sequencing tech­nolo­gies the field relies on today. In the 1970s he real­ized that mol­e­cules called restric­tion enzymes, which cut DNA into smaller pieces, could make sequencing a more acces­sible pos­si­bility. He there­fore shifted his focus to these mol­e­cules, leading the effort to dis­cover three quar­ters of the world’s first restric­tions enzymes. It was this work that led to his dis­covery of split genes.

“As marine species dis­ap­pear, you also lose their DNA, which con­tains some extremely valu­able infor­ma­tion,” Roberts said. He noted that bringing OGL to North­eastern opens up new oppor­tu­ni­ties for stu­dents and fac­ulty researchers alike. “Among Boston’s uni­ver­si­ties, North­eastern is clearly breaking new ground. I am very pleased to join the fac­ulty and help accel­erate its move into a lead­er­ship position.”

OGL’s move will facil­i­tate col­lab­o­ra­tions between sci­en­tists at the Marine Sci­ence Center and inves­ti­ga­tors around the world, offering the oppor­tu­nity to greatly expand the range of genomics evo­lu­tion inves­ti­ga­tions pos­sible for marine species.

North­eastern researchers have already begun to leverage the resource in their own inves­ti­ga­tions. Many have been con­tributing to the repos­i­tory for sev­eral years. For example, William Det­rich, pro­fessor of marine and envi­ron­mental sci­ences, has deposited many Antarctic fish and inver­te­brate DNA sam­ples into the col­lec­tion, while Steven Vollmer, asso­ciate pro­fessor of marine and envi­ron­mental sci­ences, and his stu­dents in Northeastern’s Three Seas Pro­gram are actively gath­ering sam­ples from all of the Caribbean corals.

The OGL part­ner­ship and Roberts’ appoint­ment both reflect Northeastern’s com­mit­ment to use-​​inspired approaches to prob­lems in health, secu­rity, and sustainability.

Originally published in news@Northeastern on January 23, 2014.

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