The challenge: How do cells know which genes to use and which to ignore?
The work: Bird – along with Aharon Razin and Howard Cedar – demonstrated how adding a simple chemical group (a methyl group) to DNA affects how and when genetic information is used.
Why it matters: Understanding how to turn methylation on and off could lead to treatments for cancer and other diseases.
Adrian Bird holds the Buchanan Chair of Genetics at the University of Edinburgh and is Director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology. He obtained his PhD at Edinburgh University. Following postdoctoral experience at the Universities of Yale and Zurich, he joined the Medical Research Council's Mammalian Genome Unit in Edinburgh. In 1987 he moved to Vienna to become a Senior Scientist at the newly-founded Institute for Molecular Pathology. Dr Bird's research focuses on the basic biology and biomedical significance of DNA methylation. His laboratory identified CpG islands as gene markers in the vertebrate genome and discovered proteins that read the DNA methylation signal to influence chromatin structure. Mutations in one of these proteins, MeCP2, cause the autism spectrum disorder Rett Syndrome. Dr Bird's laboratory established a mouse model of Rett Syndrome and showed that the resulting severe neurological phenotype can be cured. Awards include the Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine (1999) and the Charles-Léopold Mayer Prize of the French Academy of Sciences (2008). He was a governor of the Wellcome Trust from 2000 - 2010 and is currently a Trustee of Cancer Research UK.