Professor Brian Wilkins

Geneticist who worked on the replication and recombination of bacterial DNA

Brian Michael Wilkins, geneticist: born Cheltenham, Gloucestershire 3 April 1939; Assistant Lecturer and Lecturer, Queen Mary College, London 1965-66; Research Associate, Radiobiology Laboratories, Yale University School of Medicine 1966-69; Lecturer, Department of Genetics, Leicester University 1969-80, Senior Lecturer 1980-96, Reader 1996-2000, Head of Department 1996-2000, Professor of Microbial Genetics 2000-03; married 1972 Susan Hollom (one son); died Leicester 7 April 2003.

Brian Wilkins used genetics to study the mechanisms controlling the horizontal spread of genes in bacterial populations. His work was of great intrinsic interest as a study of complex biological phenomena, but also had broader impact in revealing mechanisms driving the spread of antibiotic resistance in bacterial populations and events in important infectious diseases.

Wilkins was born in Cheltenham in 1939 and brought up in Bristol, where he attended Clifton College. He read Botany as a Neale Exhibitioner at Queen's College, Oxford, graduating with second class honours in 1962. He was awarded a Christopher Welch Scholarship to support his DPhil research on genetic recombination in bacteria, under the supervision of E.A. Bevan. During his postgraduate training he attended a course in Naples on the genetics and physiology of bacterial viruses that had a lasting influence on his scientific interests and his experimental design.

After a brief period at Queen Mary College, London, Wilkins joined the laboratory of Paul Howard-Flanders in the Radiobiology Laboratories, Yale University School of Medicine, as a postdoctoral research associate. Howard-Flanders was a British-born geneticist who was established amongst the international network of scientists interested in the mechanisms of replication, recombination and repair of DNA molecules. Together with Dean Rupp and others, they published several important papers on the replication and recombination of bacterial DNA that had been damaged by UV irradiation.

In 1969, Wilkins was recruited by Bob Pritchard to join the emerging new Department of Genetics at Leicester University. There he continued to work on processes related to DNA recombination, with increasing emphasis on the role of plasmid-borne genes in the transfer of DNA between bacterial cells.

As early as 1975, he produced evidence for a genetic interaction between certain plasmid genes and host genes encoding components of the cellular DNA replication machinery. Developments of this observation in his laboratory led to the discovery of a plasmid gene encoding DNA primase, an enzyme crucially involved in the initiation of DNA replication. Wilkins and his colleagues established that the plasmid-specified primase protein was transferred from the donor to the recipient cell during the bacterial "mating" event, and that this could occur in the absence of DNA transfer.

The importance of these observations on plasmid-mediated protein export is emphasised by the genetic homology between the cognate transport proteins and components of secretion systems associated with several clinically important bacterial pathogens, including Legionella pneumophila, the cause of legionnaires' disease.

Wilkins's interest in plasmid biology and horizontal gene-transfer fuelled a continuing study of the genetic interactions between the plasmid and the recipient cell, in which the newly transferred DNA encounters a potentially antagonistic environment. He pioneered the studies that have shown that the first few plasmid genes transferred are immediately expressed in the recipient cell to produce proteins that help to protect and establish the incoming DNA in the hostile environment.

Plasmid-encoded proteins block host-specific degradation ("restriction") of the incoming DNA, inhibit the potentially suicidal "SOS" response and augment a potentially limiting host protein that is necessary for DNA replication. The relevant plasmid genes are expressed in a transient burst by a mechanism that unusually involves utilisation of the single-stranded transferred DNA as the template for RNA polymerase.

Wilkins's most recent studies, in collaboration with biochemical colleagues, involved exploration of the hypothesis that the single-stranded DNA folds into a unique secondary structure that creates a temporary template for RNA polymerase. Replication of the transferred strand in the recipient would necessarily destroy this special secondary structure and self-limit the burst of gene-expression.

Brian Wilkins's approach to laboratory investigation was reflective and careful. He relished the planning process, designing the controlled experiment that would test the current hypothesis. Early in his career a referee assessed him as "interested, original, ingenious and effective": that perceptive description remained true throughout his career. He worked with a small team, often a technician and a PhD student, sometimes a single postdoctoral associate, but was able to make an internationally recognised scientific contribution over two decades.

His status in the field was well recognised. He received frequent invitations to speak or chair sessions at international meetings and to write reviews for leading journals. He was also a very effective university teacher, caring deeply about the welfare of his students and the quality of their educational experience. He was a painstaking administrator and had an integrating influence on his beloved Department of Genetics while acting as its Head from 1996 to 2000.

Wilkins had productive interactions with a wide circle of professional colleagues in Europe, Australia and North America, whom he referred to as his "friends". He was magnanimous in his relationships and seemed constitutionally incapable of making enemies.

W. J. Brammar

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Parts Advisor

£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading Mercedes-Ben...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telemarketers / Sales - Home Based - OTE £23,500

£19500 - £23500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced B2B Telemarketer wa...

Recruitment Genius: Showroom Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This global company are looking for two Showro...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor