Researcher in Spotlight – Adrian Bird

In our website feature “Researcher in Spotlight” this month we ask our researcher Adrian Bird to tell us a bit more about himself.


Could you give us a quick overview of your background and career so far?

I have held the Buchanan Chair of Genetics since 1990. I graduated in Biochemistry from the University of Sussex and obtained a PhD in Edinburgh. That was followed by postdoctoral experience at Yale and Zurich Universities, after which I joined the MRC Mammalian Genome Unit in Edinburgh. In 1987 I moved to Vienna to the new Institute for Molecular Pathology, returning to Scotland a few years later. My lab’s research focuses on the basic biology of the genome, including the role of DNA methylation and other epigenetic processes. We 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 severe neurological disorder Rett Syndrome. We established a mouse model of this disorder and unexpectedly found that the resulting severe neurological phenotype is reversible.

How did you become interested in your current field of research?

Biology as taught at school was something of a turn-off, but away from the classroom I was very interested in natural history (birds, frogs, etc). I particularly remember watching a series of TV programs on Sunday mornings (a rather unusual thing in the early 1960s) with scientists from Cambridge explaining recent excitement in the new Molecular Biology. The key thing was that the presenters were the actual scientists, there in black and white, telling us about the structure of myoglobin (John Kendrew) or viruses (Aaron Klug) and of course, DNA. DNA itself was not yet on any school curriculum and for some reason it caught my imagination. I decided then that I wanted to know more about it – and that remains true today.

What are you currently working on and what importance does your work have for autism research?

Rett syndrome is sometimes classified as an autism spectrum disorder due to its late onset and because repetitive movements and lack of speech are characteristic. We are trying to understand how the faulty MeCP2 protein works and why things go wrong when it is missing.

What do you enjoy most about scientific research?

It sounds perverse, but I enjoy showing that what everyone thinks is true is in fact false. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does you know you have found something genuinely new that has shifted, however slightly, a paradigm.

What do you like about the scientific community in Edinburgh?

One of the joys of research is the constant churn of young enthusiastic students who come through the lab. The best students go to the best research institutions, which means that Edinburgh is a perfect place to be.

What is your favourite high tech research tool?

None. I don’t usually accept people who “want to learn new techniques” in my group. I want people who want to solve problems and make discoveries. Anyone can learn to use a technology, but far fewer know how to pose and answer an important question.

What is your favourite low tech research tool?

The brain.

Where do you usually get the best ideas for your research?

From other people.

What is your hidden talent?

Years ago, I illustrated a series of children’s books written by my father about a talking dog. Not professional quality really, so the “talent” remains pretty well hidden.