Prof Rawlings


A real mensch and one of the foremost scientists in his field – this is how colleagues and peers described Prof Doug Rawlings at a public lecture during which he reflected not only on his research into the biology and evolution of a group of very specific little molecules called plasmids, but also about the magnificence and exquisiteness of science in general.

In his lecture Prof Rawlings was describing his research for the degree Doctor of Science which is expected to be awarded during the Stellenbosch University December 2014 graduation. A Doctor of Science degree is awarded for published work of an exceptional standard, containing original contribution to the advancement of knowledge and learning which has given the candidate international distinction in their field.

But, muses Prof Rawlings, receiving the coveted DSc degree is actually a minor event compared to the journey of over thirty years in getting there. And he regards the public lecture, organised by the Department of Microbiology’s Prof Emile van Zyl, as a very special opportunity to share his lifelong fascination with science.

“It saddens me that a lot of people do not perceive the beauty of science. They regard it to be utilitarian and so its beauty is lost to them,” he says.

“Science is a cultural expression during which we as scientists design the question, but never the answer. Yet he who sets the question may be as creative and imaginative as that which we see in art or literature. But that is a side which people do not see.”


Prof Rawlings (right) with Prof David Woods

His interest in these tiny molecules, which has since become synonymous with genetic engineering, was piqued during the early 1980s while doing research on the genetic manipulation of bioleaching bacteria at the University of Cape Town. The research group, initiated by Prof David Woods, was trying to develop a biological agent for the mining industry that would be on par with other processes for leaching metals, such as copper, uranium and gold, from ore.

This amazing little piece of DNA, subsequently called IncQ2 plasmids, is actually an independent life form, like a virus, but lives in its host (almost any bacterium, though he used E. coli for most of the studies). It has this unique ability to move from host to host by means of what scientists call a Type4 secretion system. It is able to transfer itself into just about any bacterium and has also been shown to transfer to plants and animals although it does not replicate in the latter two. In the 1980s, the motivation was to use plasmids from biomining bacteria to develop genetic systems so as to be able to genetically engineer these microorganisms.

When talking about the moment in the lab when he discovered that these plasmids can replicate in another organism, he can hardly sit still: “It was extremely exciting times. Today the discovery that plasmids can replicate themselves in another organism is probably deemed trivial. But I cannot tell you how, in 1983, it felt to be the only person in the world to know that there was this plasmid that could do this!” he exclaims. In the thesis, he describes it “as one of the most memorable results” of his career.

The work was published as a note in the Journal of Bacteriology in May 1984. This was probably the first report of a cloning experiment in South Africa.

Prof Rawlings was hooked and over the next 30 years, while his main research focus was on the biology of biomining microorganisms, he continued with this research on the side. He first set out to describe the unique replication method of the IncQ family plasmids. His research showed that the IncQ plasmid is an amazing evolutionary little molecule which has developed ingenious ways to ensure its own reproduction and well-being, such as keeping its host alive by providing the antidote for the toxins which it has just released.

He published and co-published 21 original research articles and reviews on the IncQ2 plasmids, the last a review article for the journalPlasmid in 2012. All this work was done purely out of scientific curiosity with no direct funding: “This has been more of a scientific hobby and intellectual challenge than a major research field as this work has never received direct funding, but has been piggy-backed onto other work. Nevertheless, it is research that has given me great pleasure,” he concludes.

To date, all published work on the biology of the IncQ2 plasmid subgroup originated from his research group, first at the University of Cape Town and since 1998 from the Department of Microbiology at Stellenbosch University.

After the lecture, Prof David Woods, former vice-chancellor of Rhodes University, said Prof Rawlings was the only one of his 40 postgraduate students at the time who has reached the highest possible level in his career. He also added that, had he been vice-chancellor of UCT at the time when Prof Rawlings decided to come to Stellenbosch University, he would never have allowed it.

On a more personal note, Prof Leon Dicks from the Department of Microbiology, said colleagues and friends regard Prof Rawlings as a real mensch, a person of integrity and honour, and someone they can look up to.

Author: Wiida Fourie-Basson

Here is a gallery of some of the images of the evening:

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