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Dalhousie Researcher Awarded Canada’s Top Science Prize Of $1 Million

We may all ponder the mystery of life at times, but Ford Doolittle made it a vocation.

The professor emeritus at Dalhousie University in Halifax, whose work helped uproot the tree of life, has spent more than 40 years unravelling the mysteries and processes of evolution.

And at 71 he continues the quest – one that gets a boost Monday when Doolittle will be awarded Canada’s top science prize for 2014, the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering.

“I would have kept going anyway, but it’s nice,” Doolittle says of the medal and $1 million in research funding that comes with it.

The prize, awarded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, is for research contributions characterized by excellence and influence.

In Doolittle’s case, it’s also a nod to bold and radical ideas.

As a teenager Doolittle became intrigued with understanding life in its simplest form. After a Ph.D from Stanford University, the U.S.-born Doolittle landed in Halifax in 1971 as a molecular biologist.

The more he learned about microbes, their genetic machinery and they way they readily swap genes, the more he became convinced the proponents of the neat and orderly tree of life had it wrong.

Fifteen years ago he laid out the evidence that shook Darwin’s evolutionary tree of life, arguing it was an inadequate model for understanding two-thirds of life’s history on Earth.

Rather than a single primeval ancestral cell emerging some four billion years ago as the tree model suggested, he pointed to evidence that life evolved from a population of many different primitive cells that kept swapping genes.

“The history of life was much more complicated and net-like and web-like than it was tree-like,” Doolittle said in an interview with Postmedia News.

“There is not a single root, but multiple roots instead going back into a pre-cellular time.”

Doolittle knew he was out on a limb taking on the evolutionary tree. “I’m a little bit braver about putting ideas out there than some people are,” he says. But he was right.

Lateral gene transfer, as the gene swapping process is known, is now accepted as one of the major forces driving microbial evolution.

It is also one of the reasons today’s microbes are growing resistant to antibiotic drugs. Bacteria are so busy swapping resistance genes that new strains of “superbugs” are emerging, which health authorities say could be unstoppable.

“It’s an enormous problem,” says Doolittle.

He says it’s also a “prime example” of the failures of the current research agenda, that has politicians and research administrators demanding scientists pursue work and projects of commercial interest.

There is little money to be made developing new antibiotics “because if an antibiotic works you only have to take it for 10 days and you’re cured,” says Doolittle, noting pharmaceutical companies are more interested in money-making drugs for chronic conditions that patients take for life.

So there’s an “economic disincentive” to develop new antibiotics even though the rise of resistant organisms is  “probably our most important health problem,” says Doolittle.

He says the pendulum has swung too far towards funding research that might boost the economy. “It’s as if every research project has to justify itself in terms of its practical benefit,” he says,  which he describes as “foolish” and shortsighted.

“Good science is a free marketplace of ideas, not directed by managers who say ‘you should do this, or you should do that’ in response to some strategic initiative.”

And he says the pursuit of knowledge is worth it for the sake of knowledge: “Understanding the world is one of the more serious obligations of our species.”

And Doolittle has no plans to stop.

He is currently lead investigator on a Canadian study involved in the international human microbiome project exploring the largely unknown communities of microbes that live in and on our bodies.

He is also intrigued by all the so-called “junk” DNA in the human genome.  “I think 90 per cent of it is junk, frankly,” says Doolittle, who will be hiring graduate students with his prize money to further the work.

“I think I’m going be one of those aged professors that they say ‘You know, he kept coming in every day right up to the end.’ ”