Richard J. Roberts, PhD

Sir Richard Roberts is the Chief Scientific Officer at New England Biolabs, Beverly, Massachusetts.  He received his Ph.D. from the University of Sheffield in Organic Chemistry after which he moved to Harvard University in 1969 to work with Professor J.L. Strominger.  In 1972 he joined Dr. J.D. Watson in Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory where he eventually became the Assistant Director.  He first worked on the newly discovered Type II restriction modification systems (RM) in 1972, and in the next few years his group discovered and characterized more than 100 restriction enzymes. Cloning and studying genes from several RM systems have been a major research theme in his laboratory. In 1977, work on Adenovirus-2 led to the discovery of split genes and mRNA splicing and he received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1993. The 35,937 nucleotide DNA sequence of the Adenovirus-2 genome was completed in 1985. This required the extensive use of computer methods, both for the assembly of the sequence and its subsequent analysis, and for which many of the key programs were first written by his group. The further development of computer methods for protein and nucleic acid sequence analysis continues to be a major research focus of his team.  Another active area of his research interest is the field of DNA methyltransferases. Crystal structures for the HhaI methyltransferase, both alone and in complex with DNA, were obtained in collaboration with Dr. Xiaodong Cheng.  From this work came the discovery of base flipping in 1993 whereby the target cytosine base that becomes methylated is flipped completely out of the helix so that it is accessible for chemical reaction. 

Dr. Roberts considers the problem of functional annotation of genes found in newly sequenced bacterial and archaeal genomes of great importance, and wishes this challenge to be addressed effectively. 


Title and Abstract:


COMBREX A project to increase the experimental validation of functional predictions.

New England Biolabs, Ipswich, MA, USA


In the last few years DNA sequencing has become very inexpensive to a point where most single organism biological studies begin by sequencing its genome. While the sequencing is easy, the interpretation of that sequence is difficult. COMBREX is a new, international project to find the function of new genes in prokaryotic genomes.  It involves bioinformatics and biochemical experimentation. It highlights the need for a gold standard set of experimentally validated proteins of known sequence and function. The implementation offers excellent opportunities for students to become involved in some real scientific research and thereby encourage young students to become scientists. In the talk I will describe the COMBREX project and place it into the larger context of the current needs of biology, both for the basic purposes of understanding life and also as a stepping stone to clinical applications in combating infectious diseases. Because individual aspects of the project are relatively inexpensive it provides an excellent opportunity for institutions with limited resources to participate in cutting edge science and perhaps even make some exciting discoveries.