Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry awarded the 2011 MRC Millennium Medal
From left to right: Professor Mark Sansom, head of the Department of Biochemistry; Professor Sir John Savill, MRC chief executive; Professor Sir Edwin Southern; Sir John Chisholm, MRC chairman; and Professor Andrew Hamilton, vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford
Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry Sir Edwin Southern has been awarded the 2011 MRC Millennium Medal, recognising his outstanding contribution to the field of genetics.
The Medal, given to an MRC-funded scientist for research which has made a major contribution towards the health and wealth of society, was presented at a ceremony in the Biochemistry Department in December 2011.
Sir Ed has dedicated his life to the field of DNA research and his many inventions have transformed the field. He is best known for the invention of the Southern blotting technique in 1975 which identifies whether specific sequences are contained in a sample of DNA. One of the most famous developments of the blotting process was the invention of DNA fingerprinting by Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys at the University of Leicester.
It was after his move to the department in 1985 to take up the Whitley Professorship of Biochemistry that Sir Ed further developed the science that underpins the Southern Blot into the area of oligonucleotide microarray technology or ‘DNA chips’.
He showed how large sets of oligonucleotides could be made on a glass surface by in situ synthesis in just a few steps using efficient combinatorial methods.These DNA chips provide a powerful method of probing the presence of thousands of specific gene sequences in a sample, and of monitoring the changes in gene expression levels across multiple genes.
The technology has been used widely in research and in the clinic and its global market is worth many billions of pounds.
In 1995, Sir Ed commercialised his work in the area of oligonucleotide microarrays by founding the biotechnology company Oxford Gene Technology (OGT). The company is focused on providing innovative clinical genetics and diagnostic solutions to advance molecular medicine. Sir Ed is OGT’s Chairman and Chief Scientific Officer.
Sir Ed's success in developing microarray technology has allowed him to establish two charities, the Kirkhouse Trust which supports research and training on crop improvement in semi-arid regionsof East and West Africa, and the Edina Trust which promotes and funds science in primary schools.
On presenting the award to Sir Ed, MRC Chief Executive Sir John Savill said: ‘The MRC is proud to award this year’s Millennium Medal to one of the UK’s most pioneering scientists. Ed has made a huge impact across the field of genetics and his work continues to play an important role in research today. Without the blotting technique, so many other discoveries and advances would not have been made. Ed’s research has transformed healthcare and improved the lives of many patients.’
Professor Andrew Hamilton, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, called Sir Ed a ‘scientist, innovator, entrepreneur and philanthropist whose influence has been seen far beyond this country’. Professor Mark Sansom, Head of the Department, added: ‘I hope we can live up to the example provided by Ed and inspire the next generation of biochemistry researchers to go on and also achieve great things.’
Sir Ed highlighted the role that the department and University played in allowing him to pursue his interests: ‘Technology development is a multidisciplinary activity. Here, in the Department of Biochemistry, I enjoyed the support of excellent students and post-doctoral fellows who worked with me on the 4th floor of the Krebs tower – engineers, mathematicians, chemists and physicists as well as the biologists who make use of the methods. And being in the University gave me access to experts in other departments too - a privilege for which I am really grateful.’
The MRC Millennium Medal joins a number of previous honours bestowed on Sir Ed. In June 2003 he received a knighthood for services to the development of DNA technology, and in September 2005, was awarded the Albert Lasker Award in Clinical Medical Research for the development of Southern blotting.