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Richard J. Roberts Collection

Identifier: RJR

Scope and Contents

This collection consists entirely of memorabilia. Material includes awards, certificates, and gifts presented to Richard J. Roberts for honorary awards, degrees, lectures, etc.


  • Creation: 1984 - 2019

Conditions Governing Access

Physical access is given only by appointment, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Certain restrictions to material apply. Contact archivist for details.

Conditions Governing Use

Archival materials may be used for research purposes only. Usage of material to support decisions about the person who is the subject of the material, or in a way that causes substantial damage or distress to them is prohibited. When visiting the physical repository, archival materials must remain in the archival reading area. Item duplication is to be done by archivists. Fees are applied to copies made. Digital photography is permitted by users. Due to the very fragile nature of some materials in this collection, some must be used under the supervision of an archivist.

Biographical / Historical

Richard J. Roberts was born in 1943, the only child of John and Edna Roberts (née Allsop) in Derby, England. His father was a motor mechanic and his mother a homemaker. Young Richard J. Roberts was interested in puzzles, solving problems, as well a passionate reader with an early interest in chemistry, physics, and mathematics.

Richard J. Roberts attended Sheffield University, studying Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics in the first year and Biochemistry as a subsidiary subject in the second year. Roberts graduated in 1965 with an upper second class honours degree.

Roberts was a PhD student under David Ollis, Professor of Organic Chemistry. As a PhD student Roberts explored the neoflavonoids found in a piece of heartwood from a Brazilian tree. During this time he came across a book, by John Kendrew, that was to change the course of his research career. It was Roberts' first exposure to “molecular biology” and he became hooked. For postdoctoral studies, he looked for a laboratory doing biochemistry that might accept an organic chemist and provide a pathway into molecular biology. Jack Strominger offered Roberts a position at Harvard University where Strominger had just been appointed Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Roberts arrived in the US on January 1st, 1969.

While at Harvard, Roberts was guided into the world of tRNAs. In late 1970, Roberts had succeeded in making enough pure tRNAGly to start sequencing and set off for a one month sojourn in Cambridge to learn the techniques. This was a heady experience for Roberts that validated his decision to be a molecular biologist.

When it came time to leave Harvard Roberts wanted to return to the UK and applied for a job in Edinburgh. In the meantime, Roberts was approached by Mark Ptashne, who told Roberts that Jim Watson was looking for someone to sequence SV40. Roberts had not met Jim previously and was over-awed when Watson offered Roberts the job after a 10 minute meeting. With no word from Edinburgh, Roberts decided the offer was too good to turn down and in September, 1972, Roberts moved to Cold Spring Harbor.

Earlier in 1972, Roberts attended a seminar at Harvard Medical School given by Dan Nathans. He described an enzyme, Endonuclease R, that could cleave DNA into specific pieces. This was to shape much of Roberts subsequent research career. Sanger had developed RNA sequencing because there were plenty of small RNA molecules to practice on, but no suitable DNA molecules. Roberts realized that Nathans’ restriction enzyme gave an immediate way to isolate small DNA molecules.

Upon moving to Cold Spring Harbor, Roberts set out to make preparations of Endonuclease R and the few other restriction enzymes known at the time after attending Dan Nathans' seminar at Harvard Medical School about Endonuclease Phyllis Myers joined Roberts in 1973. Myers became the keeper of Roberts' enzyme collection and a valuable resource to scientists around the world. Roberts lab constantly sent samples to other researchers and were inundated with visitors. Every meeting at Cold Spring Harbor brought a few people carrying tubes of DNA to see if Roberts had an enzyme that would cut it. Three quarters of the world’s first restriction enzymes were discovered or characterized in Roberts laboratory. Roberts began to map the DNA. Similar work was being carried out in Joe Sambrook’s lab at Cold Spring Harbor and eventually led to the only joint publication Roberts had with Phil Sharp.

In 1974, Richard Gelinas, whom Roberts had first met at Harvard, joined Roberts' laboratory to characterize the initiation and termination signals for an Adenovirus-2 mRNA. In March, 1977, Roberts hit on the right experiment to show that their proposed split structure for Adenovirus-2 mRNAs was correct. Louise Chow and Tom Broker, two talented electron microscopists, agreed to collaborate with Roberts and Gelinas on the crucial experiment.

Roberts' lab work turned to an analysis of the sequences involved in RNA splicing. Joe Sambrook and Walter Keller cloned the common leader sequence at the 5′-end of late Adenovirus-2 mRNAs and Sayeeda Zain sequenced it. Later Roberts' lab undertook the complete sequence of Adenovirus-2 DNA. This required a lot of computer software development spearheaded by Richard Gelinas and Tom Gingeras. In 1978, this was still a relatively new activity and not considered particularly biological. Roberts had trouble convincing Jim Watson that computers were essential for modern biology and for several years operated remotely through Stony Brook University. Eventually, Roberts managed to get funding from NIH (Phil Sharp was chairman of a site-visit team that reviewed this grant). Roberts' work has been in the area of DNA methylases as outlined in his Nobel Lecture.

In 1992 Roberts' moved to New England Biolabs, a small private company of 150 individuals making research reagents, most notably restriction enzymes, and carrying out basic research. In 1974 Roberts had tried unsuccessfully to convince Jim Watson that Cold Spring Harbor should start a company to manufacture and sell restriction enzymes. Watson declined, thinking there was no money to be made. Soon after this Roberts met Don Comb, the president and founder of New England Biolabs, who had a small basement operation going with himself, his wife and one technician. Comb was about to start selling the first restriction enzyme. Roberts told Comb about his rapidly growing collection and was appointed chief consultant of New England Biolabs. He later became joint Research Director along with Ira Schildkraut and now holds the title of Chief Scientific Officer at New England Biolabs.

Roberts is married to Jean and has four children: Alison, Andrew, Christopher and Amanda.



12 Boxes

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Clare Clark
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Repository Details

Part of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives Repository

Library & Archives
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
One Bungtown Rd
Cold Spring Harbor NY 11724 USA