By Fr. Benedict Mayaki, SJ
Professor David Baulcombe is one of the newest members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. As such, He hopes - in collaboration with other academicians - to learn, discuss, and help work for the benefit of people and the planet.
Born in Solihull, Great Britain, Professor David Baulcombe studied at the Universities of Leeds and Edinburgh, and was awarded a research doctorate. He has focused his research on gene regulation and gene expression during normal development and in disease resistance. He is the recipient of several awards including the Balzan Prize for Epigenetics (2012) and the Wolf Prize in Agriculture (2010). In 2009, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.
Since 2017, Prof. Baulcombe has been Research Professor at the Royal Society and Professor of Botany in the Department of Plant Science at Cambridge University, UK. He is the author of numerous publications and has taught in several universities.
Field of scientific research
“I have always been interested in the ways that science influences perspectives on the natural world and the ways we can use science to improve the well-being of people,” says Prof. Baulcombe, in an interview with Vatican News.
He explains that his research over the years has been about genes, particularly how they get switched “on” and “off”.
Clarifying further, he says that during development everything starts as one cell which “differentiates” into other types of cells. During this process, some genes are switched on, and others off. In the same way, when organisms are infected with viruses, genes in the host are switched on or off in response to the infection.
Professor Balcombe's contribution in this regard has been to reveal not just the major “on and off” switches, but also information about what he refers to as a “fine-tuning mechanism” of the regulation of genes at the right level and at the right time.
Discovering how living things work
Giving more details about his approach, he calls himself a “reductionist wholist.” Illustrating this, he says that if we need to understand how living things work, it helps to know the component parts of the system. Therefore, since he holds that the “genes of living systems are probably their most fundamental component part,” understanding how they are regulated would lead to a better understanding of cells, organisms, and populations.
Prof. Baulcombe’s research has also led him to the discovery of a new molecule while working on “gene silencing” (regulation of gene expression in cells by switching them on or off). He explains that genes are made of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and that there is a system molecule in living cells called ribonucleic acid (RNA). In his work on gene silencing, his laboratory discovered this new, smaller RNA molecule in plants.
Highlighting the applications of his research, Prof. Baulcome underscores its use in the field of agriculture: in disease and disease resistance in plants, as well as the development of agriculture which requires minimal application of pesticides. All of these, he explains, contribute to food security and environmental sustainability of agriculture.
His work on “gene silencing” also converged at the same time with the research of other people who were doing the same thing with animal cells (worms, mice and fungi).
This has thus also led to the creation of drugs and therapeutic compounds that can be applied to cure diseases in people based on the type of small RNA molecules that his research discovered.
Service to Church and society
He points out that there are many ways in which the Pontifical Academy of Sciences can help ensure that science is best used for the benefit of people.
With the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, for example, he says that the Academy can help leaders of society, including the Church, to create frameworks that help identify and deal with “what we know and what we do not know” in complex systems like our societies.
Prof. Baulcombe also notes that there are other needs in society that could be, but have not yet been, addressed by science.
This, he explains, is often “because the priorities of scientific research are shaped by market forces and profit.”
He hopes that the Academy will use its “influence and its voice” to help tackle these problems through science.
Appointment to the Pontifical Academy
Pope Francis appointed him as an ordinary member of the Academy on 26 September 2020.
The Pontifical Academy of Sciences aims to promote the progress of the mathematical, physical, and natural sciences. It also seeks to stimulate an interdisciplinary approach to scientific knowledge and provide authoritative advice on scientific and technological matters, among other things. It is currently holding a Plenary meeting, from 7-9 October.