David Charles Baulcombe

Presentation address by Professor Paul Knox


In awarding an honorary degree, we are celebrating excellence.  Today we honour Professor  Sir David Baulcombe for his outstanding contributions and achievements in plant science and genetics. 

David is a Leeds graduate.  He obtained a first class degree in Botany in 1973 and then moved to Edinburgh, where he took his PhD in the fledgling field of plant molecular biology.  During his scientific career he has been responsible for many important advances, including devising approaches to make plants resistant to viruses.  However, his most significant contribution to science has come from his work on epigenetics.  David’s group showed that RNA can cause heritable changes to the genetic material of the cell, providing a mechanism to explain how the environment can change an organism and its progeny.  He discovered a new form of gene regulation, involving short interfering RNA molecules, which is profoundly important in the lives of both plants and animals.  His research has huge implications for both fundamental and applied science, ranging from new approaches to the study and treatment of human diseases to crop improvement for global food security.

David’s pioneering work in genetics and epigenetics was recognised by his election to a Fellowship of the Royal Society in 2001 and has been marked by an exceptional number of prestigious awards including the Royal Medal from the Royal Society in 2006;  the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Science and the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research in 2008;  the Wolf Prize for Agriculture in 2010;  and the Balzan Prize in 2012.  He was knighted in 2009 for services to plant science.  Notably, this recognised his scientific achievements, rather than services to government.  David is currently Royal Society Research Professor and Regius Professor of Botany at Cambridge. 

Whilst maintaining a clear focus on – and unswerving dedication to – understanding genetic regulation in plants, David has also served the science community in numerous other ways.  In 2009, for example, he was one of the leading authors of Reaping the Benefits, a highly influential report by the Royal Society on the need for future global food security.  And David even found time to represent Leeds in the special Christmas series of University Challenge last year!

Vice-Chancellor, this university is proud of his inspirational achievements, and it gives me great pleasure to present to you for the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa, David Charles Baulcombe.