Student - March 6, 2008

Honours for unsung hero and outspoken marine expert

David Baulcombe and Daniel Pauly will receive honorary doctorates during Wageningen University’s ninetieth anniversary celebrations on 7 March, making them the fiftieth and fifty-first honorary doctors of the University.

By awarding an honorary doctorate to David Baulcombe, Wageningen scientists are making a statement. In their eyes, the British biologist unjustly missed a Nobel Prize in 2006 for his work on RNA interference. Baulcombe published his most important findings in Science in 1999. He and other plant scientists had been working for nearly a decade on a number of hitherto unexplained phenomena in plants. At the end of the nineties Baulcombe managed to complete the puzzle, and thus discovered RNA interference. This is now regarded as one of the most important new discoveries in biology and medicine. Also referred to as gene silencing, it enables scientists to silence genes without using genetic modification. This can be done not only in plants and fungi, but also in humans. As a result, the technique paves the way for a whole new generation of medicines.

Nobody was surprised when the 2006 Nobel Prize for medicine was awarded to the scientists who had discovered the phenomenon. But whereas three researchers had won two previous prizes – the Americans Andrew Fire and Craig Mello and the British David Baulcombe – the Nobel Prize committee only honoured the first two, who had worked with the nematode C. Elegans. Baulcombe missed out.

Virologist Professor Rob Goldbach, who nominated Baulcombe: ‘By conferring this honorary doctorate we are acknowledging the important role that Baulcombe played in the discovery of this phenomenon, which will become standard information in biology textbooks. He was the real pioneer: Fire and Mello are indebted to him.’

Daniel Pauly receives his honorary doctorate not only for his scientific achievements, but also for his role in the worldwide debate on over-fishing. Among his peers, Pauly’s performance goes undisputed, with five hundred articles to his name, including six in Nature and Science. In 1998 he showed that worldwide fishing activities had emptied the seas of large predatory fish, and that there has been a trend towards ‘fishing down the food chain’. Pauly’s outspoken statements, backed up by his research, are often controversial however. ‘You don’t need to worry about these problems, as long as your children like plankton stew,’ was a statement that made him unpopular with fishers and fisheries biologists.

Making data accessible is a recurring theme in Pauly’s career. He has set up a kind of fish Wikipedia: www.fishbase.org, an open-access database with information on thirty thousand different species of fish. Everyone can input data. Ultimately he would like to make one giant database giving visitors access to all data on a particular sea area: species present, salinity, pollution. According to Professor Johan Verreth of Aquaculture and Fisheries, Fishbase is already an indispensable tool for students and researchers. Verreth: ‘If anyone lives up to the slogan ‘Science for impact’, it is Pauly.’

All professors in Wageningen can propose candidates for honorary doctorates. The doctorate board makes a selection and the Rector makes the final decision. As the name implies, it is an honorary title rather than a paid position. The doctors receive a kappa, a kind of decorated hood that may be worn during academic ceremonies.

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