R. Michael Roberts
Wolf Prize Laureate in Agriculture 2002/3
R. Michael Roberts
Affiliation at the time of the award:
University of Missouri, USA
“for discoveries of Interferon-t and other pregnancy-associated proteins, which clarified the biological mystery of signaling between embryo and mother to maintain pregnancy, with profound effects on the efficiency of animal production systems, as well as human health and well-being”.
Professors Fuller W. Bazer and R. Michael Roberts are co-recipients of the Wolf Foundation Prize, in recognition of their seminal contributions in clarifying the biological mystery of embryo-maternal signaling, that leads to the maintenance of pregnancy and to the survival of the embryo in livestock species. While it has long been known that chemical communication between embryo and mother was essential for a successful pregnancy in mammals, little was known about the details of the process, before these two scientists began a collaboration to elucidate on these relationships.
After a period of intensive joint efforts, lasting 16 years, each has continued to make important independent contributions, at Texas A&M University and at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Among his key discoveries, Bazer isolated a uterine protein called uteroferrin and identified that it is a hematopoietic growth factor that influences the survival of the neonate and may be useful in treating diseases, such as leukemia and osteoporosis. Roberts determined that uteroferrin was identical to a class of tartrate-resistant acid phosphatases (TRAPs), subsequently purified, sequenced and cloned in humans. This has led to the screening of postmenopausal women for TRAP, elevated in association with osteoporosis. Bazer determined that estrogen in pigs and interferon-t in ruminant species, are the signals for pregnancy maintenance. The ability of interferon-t to suppress transcription of the estrogen receptor gene, provides a model for potential treatment of estrogen-dependent tumors. Roberts cloned, identified, and characterized the temporal expression of trophoblast interferon-t in sheep and cattle. His studies related to differential transcriptional regulation of interferon-t by ETS-2 and Oct-4 transcription factors, has led to the identification of a putative developmental switch that may lead to the formation of trophectoderm in early embryo development. Roberts has identified at least 100 expressed genes for pregnancy-associated proteins in the aspartyl proteinase gene family, some of which hold promise as a basis for an accurate and sensitive pregnancy test. Robert’s research on sexual dimorphism in embryos has led to the discovery that the mother’s diet (e.g., fat) close to the time of conception, may play a role in selecting the offspring’s sex.
The Wolf Foundation Prize Co-Awardees have created each a legacy of trained scientists, that are playing leadership roles in both agriculture and biomedicine. F.W. Bazer and R. Michael Roberts exemplify how devotion to basic research in agriculture can lead to practical outcomes that impact both animal production, as well as human health and well-being.