2012 Balzan Prize for Epigenetics
Acceptance Speech – Rome, 14.11.2012
Chairmen and Members of the Balzan Foundation,
Ladies and Gentlemen.
If Balzan Prizes had been awarded in the early 19th century I am sure that Thomas Young, who deciphered the Rosetta Stone and made contributions to the fields of light and mechanics, would have received at least one – probably several. He was the last person to have a credible claim to know everything. In the 21st century most of us struggle to keep abreast of even a single subject and many of us in research have a tendency to focus on a one topic. We sometimes lose sight of how we should be trying to increase general knowledge and to improve the human condition. Robert Hooke – one of the pioneers of the 18th century Age of Enlightenment – wrote that “It is the great prerogative of Mankind, above other Creatures that we are not only able to behold the works of Nature, or barely to sustain our lives by them, but we also have the power of considering, comparing, altering, assisting, and improving them to various uses”. This is surely an eloquent reminder of why broad scholarship is important.
The Balzan Foundation – through the award of Prizes in subjects as various as jurisprudence, musicology, earth science and epigenetics – reinforces the importance of scholarship across the humanities and science. I am particularly honoured to be a recipient of a Prize that recognises such diversity. I am also greatly humbled. The experience of receiving a Balzan Prize is akin to that of standing underneath the stars on a dark clear night and realising how one is such a small part of the universe – but more so. I cannot say how deep is the sense of privilege at receiving this awardfor work in epigenetics.
In the spirit of trying to place my work in the grand scheme and its relevance to people outside the laboratory I refer to the field of epigenetics as being the science of understanding how nurture can influence nature. We now know about mechanisms in cells of animals and plants that allow the consequences of a single event to persist through many cell generations or even from parent to offspring. These effects are heritable but they do not involve changes to the sequence of DNA and so they are referred to as epigenetic rather than genetic. Many scientists are progressing understanding of epigenetics, and my laboratory has had the good fortune to stumble on a set of experiments that have shed some light on one element of the mechanisms. I hope that in due course our findings will help produce improved crops – I work with plants. In addition, because there is a single tree of life, we can translate work in plants to animals. I hope that our work may help with treatment of disease in animals, including people, and provide better understanding of evolution.
Of course, I can only be here to receive an award because I have been helped.
The Gatsby Charitable Foundation has supported my work very generously since 1988 so that I could follow new leads and unexpected results. My students and postdoc colleagues have been a true inspiration and I have to admit to a slight sense of awkwardness to be a single recipient of this Prize. Please bear in mind that, although the citation has just a single name, my laboratory operates as a team. Many lab members have had a significant role in our work on epigenetics and I am looking forward to having equally talented young scientists join my group as part of the Balzan-sponsored activity.
I thank you for the great honour of the Balzan Prize.