Skip to main content

Dr. W. Ford Doolittle is the winner of this year’s Herzberg gold medal.Martin Lipman

When W. Ford Doolittle put on an exhibition of his photographs in Halifax recently, he decided on a different approach from that of fellow shooters with works featuring scenes from all around the globe. Instead, every image he chose was taken within two blocks of the gallery.

His subjects – among them a post and a bit of garbage on the sidewalk – betray a fascination with details that others may miss.

They also speak to a willingness, even a desire, to say something different.

"I think I am basically a contrarian," says Prof. Doolittle, who, when not behind a camera lens, is a world renowned evolutionary geneticist at Dalhousie University, and an outspoken critic within his own discipline. "I'm really not afraid of what other people think I'm thinking."

It's a trait that has proved useful when working at the frontiers of biology over the past four decades, even when it sometimes rubs colleagues the wrong way. And it has not stopped the 71-year-old researcher from winning the Herzberg gold medal. The nation's top science prize will be be awarded Monday by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

"Many researchers are known for making a particular discovery," said Patrick Keeling, who leads a program in microbial biodiversity for the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, which draws on Prof. Doolittle's expert advice. "Ford's actually well-known for ideas, which is really different and, to my mind, a lot more interesting and impressive."

Those ideas have managed to shake up an entire field more than once. Some of Prof. Doolittle's insights relate to sequences within our DNA that have no apparent use but which nevertheless account for a large portion of the human genome. Such sequences have been termed junk DNA, although Prof. Doolittle prefers to think of them as "clean fill."

He has argued that they may be the product of "selfish DNA," which has managed to find a way to propagate itself even though it confers no survival advantage. While it may seem straightforward, the idea provoked a hostile reception from some senior scientists when Prof. Doolittle and his collaborators first broached it in 1980.

That debate has recently been revived by results from the ENCODE project, a $400-million U.S.-led effort that in 2012 reported as much as 80 per cent of the human genome may have a specific biological function – a finding of potentially major import for understanding the connection between genomes and health. Prof. Doolittle strongly disputes the claim, which he considers an example of wishful thinking in a field pressured to show a return investment.

"The linking of DNA to realizable products means we [as scientists] have to claim we know what we're doing even when we don't," he said. "It forces us to be non-critical and hype-ish about the way we present work that might possibly have commercial benefit."

Another area where Prof. Doolittle has generated both respect and rancour involves his critique of the notion that every living species is like a branch on a tree that links back along a single line of descent to a common ancestor at the tree's base. As the sole author of a highly cited paper in 1999, Prof. Doolittle argued that the lateral swapping of genes among microbes – now a well-documented phenomenon that accounts for, among other things, the rapid rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria – effectively replaces the tree of life with an interconnected web of genes in which the concept of a single ancestor loses its meaning.

"Like no one else, he has really forced people to rethink the concept of a microbial species," said Martin Polz, an environmental microbiologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

At times, Prof. Doolittle's debates with his peers have been held up as proof that the theory of the evolution stands on shaky ground. That's simply misguided, he said. His problem is not with Darwin, nor does he think a creator had any role to play in the origin and development of life. Rather, he thinks current researchers may be over-confident about a particular version of the evolution of early life.

"It's a complicated field with a lot of controversy," said Jack Szostak, a Nobel prize-winning Harvard biologist who studies the chemical preconditions that allowed life to get its start on Earth billions of years ago. "Ford is always in the thick of things with new data and new arguments."

Prof. Doolittle credits the influence of his work not only to his contrarian stance but to his ability to argue persuasively. "Rhetoric is an important skill," he said, a lesson he learned as a Harvard undergraduate where he spent more time in English and history classes than in science.

Born and raised in the United States, with a Ph.D. from Stanford University, Prof. Doolittle said he benefited from coming as a young faculty member in 1971 to Dalhousie, where he found a friendly, non-competitive atmosphere that was lacking at top American schools. "I don't mind challenging people or going against the mainstream," he said, "But I don't want to feel like I'm competing with the guy down the hall."


Some of the science recognized Monday by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada:

Herzberg Medal

(For research contributions of sustained excellence and influence, conducted in Canada):

The Winner: W. Ford Doolittle (Dalhousie University)

The Work: Major contributions to molecular genetics, including the study of lateral gene transfer, a key driver of microbial evolution.

NSERC John Polanyi Award

(For research leading to a recent outstanding advance in natural science or engineering)

The Winner: The ALPHA-Canada Team (Project Lead, Makoto Fujiwara TRIUMPH/University of Calgary)

The Work: The 40-member team of particle physicists developed methods that led to the first measurement of the properties of atomic antimatter.

The Brockhouse Canada Prize

(for interdisciplinary research)

The Winner: Jules Blais (University of Ottawa), John Smol (Queen's s University)

The Work: By combining expertise with the paleohistory of inland waterways and environmental toxicology, the researchers have published some 40 papers relating to the ecological impact of industrial pollutants across a range of ecosystems.