The Academy has awarded the M.W. Beijerinck Virology Prize 2004 to David C. Baulcombe, head of the Disease Resistance and Gene Silencing Department at the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, United Kingdom, for his research on gene silencing as a natural defence mechanism against viruses.
Prof. David C. Baulcombe conducts research into the natural resistance to viruses in plants. Around ten years ago he demonstrated that gene silencing plays an important role in this process, and he also unravelled the underlying mechanism. It is not the genes themselves that are silenced; rather, their operation is disrupted by interference in the chain of events needed for viral reproduction. The building instructions in the RNA that is produced by a gene form part of that chain. Baulcombe discovered that plants are capable of recognising specific fragments of viral RNA and then destroying them. This prevents the RNA from performing its normal function in the reproduction of the virus, effectively making the plant resistant to that specific virus.
Baulcombe's laboratory then discovered that the recognising or tracing of specific RNA fragments is carried out by what he called 'small inhibitory RNA molecules' (siRNAs), which have the same structure as the RNA that they attack. It was then found that these siRNAs play a major role not only in plants, but also in animals and moulds. This in turn led to the discovery of other, very general mechanisms involved in gene regulation.
Not only do Baulcombe's discoveries open the way to the unravelling of the function of genes, but they also offer the prospect of being able to render 'unhealthy' genes inoperable. The knowledge that has been gained on natural defence mechanisms thus forms the basis for a whole range of new experiments, and probably also new therapies.
About the laureate
Sir David C. Baulcombe (Solihull, UK, 1952), attained his PhD at the University of Edinburgh before going on to work in Montreal (McGill University) and Athens (US) (University of Georgia). In 1980, he returned to the UK to take up a post at the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge. Since 1988, he has been working at the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, where he is also a professor at the University of East Anglia. David Baulcombe is a member of the Royal Society, and has won several other international prizes.
Hamilton, A.J. and Baulcombe, D.C. (1999) A novel species of small antisense RNA in posttranscriptional gene silencing. Science 286, 950-952
Voinnet, O., Vain, P., Angell, S. and Baulcombe, D.C. (1998) Systemic spread of sequence-specific transgene RNA degradation is initiated by localised introduction of ectopic promoterless DNA. Cell 95, 177-187