After Sir Roberts’ visit, DOST eyes Nobel laureates to pick their minds

NOBEL Laureate Sir Richard John Roberts has left an indelible impression on the Department of Science and Technology (DOST).

And in the person of the British Nobel Prize winner in 1993, the DOST has found a strong ally in promoting and pushing genetic engineering (GE), including biotechnology, among others initiatives in science and technology in the country.

Now, the DOST under the leadership of Secretary Fortunato T. de la Peña is eyeing to invite more Nobel Prize winners to pick their minds and tap them to “potentially get their support for specific initiatives that we plan to implement using these technologies.”

DOST Secretary Fortunato T. de la Peña - Science and Digital News

DOST Secretary Fortunato T. de la Peña speaks on the role of biotechnology at the NBW 2018. (Photo: Henri de Leon/DOST-STII (Science and Technology Information Institute)

That’s one of the benefits to research and development (R&D) the DOST learned from the visit of Sir Roberts to the Philippines.

It can be recalled that DOST and a number of its 18 attached agencies have been promoting and pushing the use of biotechnology in the country.

Raising public awareness on biotechnology and its benefits

On November 13-17, the DOST hosted the 14th National Biotechnology Week (NBW) 2018 celebration in collaboration with six other executive departments of the government at the World Trade Center (WTC) in Pasay City, Metro Manila.

It followed the National Science and Technology Week (NSTW) which the DOST and its agencies celebrated on July 17-21 at the SMX Convention Center, SM Mall of Asia, also in Pasay City.

The NBW carried this year’s theme dubbed “Pambansang Hamon, Pambansang Solusyon” (National Challenge, National Solution) and aimed at increasing public awareness on biotechnology’s benefits.

Fortunato T. de la Peña and SIr Roberts - Science and Digital News

DOST Secretary Fortunato T. de la Peña and 1993 Nobel Laureate Sir Richard John Roberts at the Symposium on Science, Technology, and Innovation (STI). (Photo: Henri de Leon).

Discoveries of new knowledge, products, services

“In recent years, our scientists and different R&D institutions have managed to discover new knowledge, products, and services on how different applications of biotechnology could help in various sectors such as agriculture, healthcare services, disaster preparedness management, and environmental conservation,” de la Peña said.

The DOST chief said the celebration of the NBW served as an opportunity to demonstrate how collaboration among universities, the private sector, other government agencies, and the public can create new products and services that can benefit everyone.

As part of the post-activity of the NSTW and the NBW, the DOST through its Philippine Council for Health and Research Development (DOST-PCHRD) headed by Executive Director Dr. Jaime Montoya invited Sir Roberts as the keynote speaker in the International Symposium on Science, Technology, and Innovation (STI) on November 19 at the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC), Pasay City.

Nobel Prize awardee Sir Richard John Roberts - Science and Digital News

Nobel Prize awardee Sir Richard John Roberts is flanked by DOST Secretary Fortunato T. de la Peña and DOST Undersecretary for Regional Operations Brenda L. Nazareth-Manzano.  (Photo: Henri de Leon)

Genetic engineering benefits ‘limitless’

At the symposium, Sir Roberts deep-dived into genetic engineering (GE), of which he is “a strong advocate of the use of (GE) technologies and biotechnology to benefit humanity…discussed the benefits of these newer technologies to mankind,” it was learned from an email sent by de la Peña to SDN — Science and Digital News.

Sir Roberts is an English biochemist and molecular biologist. He won with Phillip Allen Sharp the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Their discovery of “introns in eukaryotic DNA and the mechanism of gene-splicing” led to their joint Nobel award. (Wikipedia)

In his talks at the symposium, the visiting scientist, as narrated by the DOST, emphasized the “potential benefits offered by these technologies are limitless for as long as the appropriate regulatory oversight is in place in countries.”

He also strongly addressed the issues raised by groups against the use of these technologies.

Sir Roberts also indicated that he was willing to visit the Philippines again “to help promote interest in these technologies, particularly among the young scientists and researchers.”

The DOST also noted the English Nobel laureate is at present spearheading a campaign with 130 Nobel Prize winners “who support the use of genetic engineering techniques for improving plant varieties.”

DOST wants to capitalize on the Nobel Prize awardees’ expertise.

“This is a network of Nobel laureates that we can tap for future science activities and initiatives,” it said.

Importance of Nobel laureates

Sir Roberts at the symposium pointed out that when a Nobel laureate speaks, people listen.

Certainly, the leadership of the DOST has taken notice of his expertise and erudite opinion he expressed at the symposium.

“So, we can potentially get their support for specific initiatives that we plan to implement using these technologies,” the DOST said.

“Nobel laureates can inspire our young scientists and researchers to pursue research. Our young researchers can identify with them particularly when they learn of the challenges they met and how they were able to overcome them.”

The DOST described the Nobel laureates “the ultimate role models of scientific and professional excellence coupled with enthusiasm, perseverance, and commitment to ideals”

De la Peña said he “was pleased that we had the chance to learn” about Sir Roberts’ journey to the Nobel Prize.”


Booth of the Philippine Textile Research Institute (DOST-PTRI) at the NBW. (Photo: Henri de Leon)

From an inquisitive young pupil to the Nobel Prize

Born on September 6, 1943, in Derby, Great Britain, the future Nobel Prize awardee already showed interest even as a young pupil in logical problems and mathematics, the DOST narrated.

At the University of Sheffield where he was admitted at the age of 18, he took chemistry, physics, and mathematics; only three years later he was accepted as a candidate for a doctoral degree in Organic Chemistry.

His interest in biology grew after he discovered new compounds and interrelationships as he was examining substances contained in tropical wood.

Among his passions include reading and was an avid reader on everything molecular biology.

“After obtaining his Ph.D., Sir Roberts took on a position as a post-doctoral fellow with Professor Jack Strominger in the Biological Laboratories at Harvard University (United States). Thus, 1969 a new period of life began for him as a scientist,” the DOST said.

At the Cambridge University in his homeland, he stayed as a guest with Frederick Sanger, a Nobel Prize awardee in 1980 in Chemistry for the second time.

Sanger directed him to the technique of RNA sequencing, which Sir Roberts succeeded in exactly determining the individual nucleotides within some tRNA molecules. So, began his passion for nucleic acid sequences.

Discovery of “split genes”

Three years after becoming a scientist, he started working at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, where he discovered that the genes in the cell of higher organisms have a mosaic structure in which coding and non-coding sequences are interspersed, whereas bacteria, like E. coli, the genes are continuous.

Over 200 miles from New York, another scientist, Sharp with his research team at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, Massachusetts, also achieved the same discovery in 1977.

This led to the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinka Institute in Sweden proclaiming Sir Roberts and Sharp as co-awardee of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

At the DOST symposium hosted by PCHRD, Sir Roberts mentioned four factors that led him to the Nobel Prize: his interest in science early in his life; having good mentors throughout his career; lots of hard work; and luck and taking advantage of it.

Here’s what the Nobel Assembly said of the duo’s discovery of the “split genes.”

​”The general concept prevailing during the mid 1970s regarding the hereditary material and its function can be summarized as follows. A gene exists as a continuous stretch (segment) within a long, double-stranded DNA molecule. When the gene is activated, its information is copied into a single-stranded RNA molecule, called messenger RNA, which translates the information into a protein (figure 1A).

“This simple picture of the sequence of events radically changed through the discovery made in 1977 by Richard J. Roberts, working at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, New York, and Phillip A. Sharp, working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, USA. They found that an individual gene can comprise not only one but several DNA segments separated by irrelevant DNA (figure 1B). Such discontinuous genes exist in organisms more complex than those studied earlier.”

Nobel Prize images

Image: through Nobel Prize website.

The DOST said that Sir Roberts has been working since 1992 as a research director at New England Biolabs (NEB), which is a molecular biolgoy re-agent company in Beverley, Massachusetts. He is presently on a research centered on DNA mehylation  in bacteria and the use of bioinformatics to discover new bacterial gene function.

At the start of the symposium, DOST Undersecretary Dr. Rowena Cristina L. Guevara noted how fortunate the DOST was to have a Nobel Prize laureate as the keynote speaker of the event.

“We could learn a lot from his journey in becoming a Nobel Prize winner and his remarkable contributions in science and technology,” said Guevara, the DOST undersecretary for R&D.

She also assured DOST’s commitment in leveraging S&T “as a tool in creating many possibilities and opportunities to achieve collective prosperity, and truly making ‘Science for the People.” (EKU)

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