15 Nov 2018

Marsden Medal won by molecular 'discoverer'

From Our Changing World, 9:07 pm on 15 November 2018

A half century of ground-breaking biochemical research is recognised in the joint award of the 2018 Marsden Medal to the University of Otago’s Warren Tate.

The New Zealand Association of Scientists’ award recognises a lifetime of outstanding service to science, and is something of a family affair for Professor Tate, who is delighted that the same medal was won by his late brother, Landcare Research scientist Kevin Tate, in 2005.

Warren Tate has jointly won the 2018 Marsden Medal for outstanding service to science.

Warren Tate has jointly won the 2018 Marsden Medal for outstanding service to science. Photo: University of Otago

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These days, Warren describes himself as a biomedical scientist who works on unexplained diseases for which there are no therapies. This includes Alzheimer’s disease and myalgic encephalomyelitis, or ME/CFS.

ME/CFS is also known as chronic fatigue syndrome, and Warren’s interest in this unexplained disease came about because of his daughter, who suffers from it.

But if you had asked Warren 20 years ago to describe what he did, he says he would have said “I was a discovery molecular biologist, looking into the cell, and focusing on protein synthesis and finding out new things about it.”

Warren modestly says that he managed to find “two or three novel things.”

His first discovery was a previously unrecognised structure, a ‘stop protein synthesis’ signal in the middle of a gene.

“It turns out that we had stumbled, purely by chance, on a new method of gene regulation, called … translational frame shifting.”

Effectively this means that instead of producing a single protein from the string of simple 3-nucleotide codes stored in a piece of messenger RNA, the same gene can produce two proteins. The original code might read THE CAT SAW THE RAT, for example, but if it shifts or slips by one nucleotide to read HEC ATS AWT HER etc the result is either meaningless or in some important cases becomes a valid code for a different protein.

Warren says that it turns out that viruses such as HIV use this mechanism. He says viruses have a very small genome, but still need to produce important structural and enzyme proteins in just the right ratio.

“So [HIV] uses this mechanism to make a big protein and then chops it up. And it shifts at this site so it gets just the right ratio of structural and enzyme proteins.”

The discovery of translational frame-shifting led Warren to start working on HIV.

“I realised that this was a vulnerable point in the virus that hadn’t been exploited in any of the attempts of developing drugs, so we actually started a drug discovery programme,” says Warren.

Although Warren and his colleagues made some potentially useful drug discoveries, Warren says that this work is on hold and hasn’t been developed any further as it has been overtaken by the development of different drugs that aim to completely clear the virus from people’s bodies.

You can hear more about Warren’s other major gene discovery, his family connection to the Marsden Medal and what has inspired him as a scientist by listening to the podcast.

Professor Warren Tate studies genes and proteins.

Professor Warren Tate studies genes and proteins. Photo: University of Otago

Joint awardee John Montgomery

The 2018 Marsden Medal was jointly awarded to Professor John Montgomery from the University of Auckland. John is a marine scientist with interests ranging from brains, to sharks and Antarctic fish. He was Director of the Leigh Marine Laboratory for 12 years and promoted public engagement in science.

The 2017 Marsden Medal

The 2017 Marsden Medal was awarded to Carolyn Burns for her work studying small lake critters. In 2018, Carolyn was recognised by the Royal Society Te Apārangi with the Thomson Medal for outstanding leadership and service to environmental science and conservation. She is a recipient of the Naumann-Thienemann Medal, the world’s top award for limnology.