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 Tuesday, 31 December, 2002, 00:11 GMT
Chief scientific adviser knighted
King BBC
Professor King will hold a key position in the GM debate
The UK Government's chief scientific adviser receives a knighthood in the New Year Honours List.

Proteins are where the rubber of the Human Genome Project hits the road

Prof Alan Fersht
Professor David King is head of the Office of Science and Technology and a Fellow of the Royal Society.

He played a central role in advising the prime minister during the 8bn foot-and-mouth crisis which rocked British farming in 2001, and which saw the destruction of seven million animals.

The researcher is one of two Knights Bachelor in the list with a scientific affiliation to Cambridge University - the other being Professor Alan Fersht.

Key debate

Professor King will tackle another prominent issue in 2002, as he chairs the panel reviewing the safety and usefulness of genetically modified (GM) crops. It is due to report in the summer.

Born in South Africa in 1939, Professor King has held posts as a surface chemist at several UK universities, but most recently Cambridge.

He was appointed to his current role in October 2000.

As the results of farm-scale trials of GM crops become known and Britain moves towards a decision over whether to allow their commercial planting, Professor King will take up a central position in the debate, making regular appearances in the media.

Folding failure

The other Cambridge scientist knighted is Professor Alan Fersht, who receives the honour for his pioneering work on protein folding.

Professor Fersht is sometimes described as a founder of protein engineering.

This relatively new branch of science seeks to synthesise or modify in the lab the large biomolecules that control all cellular processes in the human body.

Made from amino acids that are joined like links in a chain, proteins fold into highly complex, three-dimensional shapes that determine their function. Any change in the shape dramatically alters the function, and even the slightest change in the folding process can cause disease.

Professor Fersht is credited with driving forward our understanding of the folding process and how it can be harnessed to produce new medical treatments.

Future medicine

The scientist told BBC News Online he was delighted his work was being recognised.

"Protein engineering has already produced new proteins for therapy, such as new antibodies," he said. "And in the environment, it can also be used to make new enzymes to degrade toxic compounds.

"We now know the basic mechanisms of how proteins fold up but we need to discover the precise rules."

It is to find such knowledge that the professor is advising IBM on its Blue Gene supercomputer project. This machine, which will be millions of times more powerful than the best home PCs, has the primary goal of unlocking the mathematical rules of folding.

With the information, and the data from the Human Genome Project, scientists hope to revolutionise medicine.

"Proteins are where the rubber of the Human Genome Project hits the road. It is where the action lies. The project has given us the sequence of all the amino acids of all the proteins in human body.

"We have to exploit that information and protein engineering is one of the ways we will do it."

Green awareness

Another from the world of science to be honoured is Dr James Lovelock. He becomes a Companion of Honour.

The researcher, author and Fellow of the Royal Society played a crucial role in raising environmental awareness in the late 20th Century.

He is best known for his Gaia theory, which views the Earth as a self-regulating "living" system rather than a balance of competing physical, chemical and biological interests.

Dr Lovelock contends that this system works to maintain the conditions that are suitable for life - organisms not only adapt to the environment, but change it as well.

Dr Lovelock's ideas, expounded in several books, have heavily influenced the green movement, although he is a supporter of nuclear power.

As a research scientist, he developed techniques for monitoring gases in the atmosphere.


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