Scientist of the month: John Gurdon

Professor Sir John Gurdon took some time away from his busy schedule to tell us about his current research interests and thoughts on the future of epigenetics research. 

Brief biography

Professor Sir John Gurdon

Professor Sir John Gurdon did his undergraduate work in Zoology at the University of Oxford. After receiving his PhD for work on nuclear transplantation in Xenopus, he took a one-year postdoctoral position at Caltech, USA. He then returned to Oxford and became a university lecturer in Embryology. 

In 1971, he moved to the MRC Molecular Biology Laboratory in Cambridge, continuing his work on amphibian developmental biology. He then moved to the University of Cambridge in 1983 as the John Humphrey Plummer Professor of Cell Biology. He co-founded the Cancer Research Campaign Unit of Molecular Embryology with Professor Ron Laskey and was Chairman of the institute until 2002.

During his career, he has concentrated on nuclear transplantation in the frog Xenopus. He has carried out a range of experiments with this material, discovering the value of messenger RNA microinjection, mechanisms of response to morphogen gradients and most recently, mechanisms of nuclear reprogramming by Xenopus oocytes and eggs.

John Gurdon served as Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge from 1995-2002, and has received various recognitions, including, most recently, the Lasker Award for Basic Medical Science, and the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2012.

What sparked your passion for science?

I was introduced at a very early age by my parents and relatives to plants and insects and encouraged to grow them at home and learn about their differences.

What exciting research projects are occurring in your lab?

We are committed to try to understand the resistance of cells to reprogramming. If we could understand this, we could reprogram somatic cells much more efficiently and so reduce the amount of cell culture required in the laboratory to provide normal and useful cells for replacement.

What made you focus on epigenetic reprogramming?

I was lead to an interest in epigenetic phenomena because, as our work progressed it became clear that this is one key area where reprogramming is important.

Where do you see epigenetics going? What do you think will be the next big breakthrough in epigenetics research?

I think the major question is now at what frequency do epigenetic changes occur? Are these changes occurring continuously, or are some of them sufficiently stable that they contribute to the general stability of cell differentiation?

What is your next scientific ambition?

This is now to understand the mechanism of nuclear reprogramming during my remaining time.

What does the Nobel Prize mean to you and your career?

I am deeply honored to have been awarded a Nobel and other prizes reflecting, I hope, an appreciation of the work that I have been able to do.

Do you have any advice to those starting their careers in research?

If a problem seems at first intractable but is clearly important, my advice is to keep working at it, don't give it up because, in the end, it will be very important.

What would you be working on if you weren't an epigeneticist?

I would want to investigate anything that relates to the stability of cell differentiation. For example, I strongly suspect that the association of a transcription factor with its definitive gene is far more stable than is currently believed to be the case on the basis of in vitro experiments.

One thing you could not live without?

A deep interest in something which fully occupies my mind.