Professor of protein chemistry.

An appreciation

Born: May 26, 1933; Died: 27 December 2013

Loading article content

Richard Penry Ambler was an outstanding scientist who became professor of protein chemistry at Edinburgh University. He was born in Bexley Heath on May 26, 1933 and moved with his family to Poona in India where his father, Dr Henry Ambler, a government chemist, had responsibility for explosives research. His mother, Anne Evans, was a civil servant.

He was sent to boarding school in England and in 1954 entered the University of Cambridge (Pembroke College) to study natural sciences. He remained in Cambridge to undertake a PhD under the supervision of Fred Sanger in the department of biochemistry, submitting his thesis entitled Structural Studies on Bacterial Proteins in 1961. This was followed by three years of postdoctoral research with Fred Sanger in the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. It was at Cambridge that Prof Ambler met his first wife Pat.

In 1965, Martin Pollock was asked to establish a department of molecular biology in the University of Edinburgh. He needed an outstanding young protein chemist to add to his staff and Prof Ambler joined in 1965.

He was elected a member of the European Molecular Biology Organisation in 1985 and was given a personal chair in protein chemistry in 1987. From 1984 to 1990, he was head of the department of molecular biology and played a key role in the reorganisation of biology within the faculty of science and engineering that led to the creation of the division of biological sciences and the Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology, of which he was head from 1990 to 1993.

His research career was devoted to answering questions concerning the evolution of bacteria with the aid of amino acid sequence information. This led him to perfect protein sequencing techniques and in 1963 he published the first amino acid sequence of a bacterial protein, that of pseudomonas cytochrome c551.

He was attracted to Edinburgh because of Martin Pollock's interest in penicillin-resistance in bacteria. Much of the resistance is due to the production of an enzyme, penicillinase or lactamase, which destroys the antibiotic. Resistance is seen in diverse bacteria and Prof Ambler asked whether the enzymes responsible for this had a common origin or had arisen independently in response to the antibiotic.

By 1978 the amino acid sequences that he and his colleagues had determined showed that while most abundant penicillinases (the class A enzymes) had a common origin, other enzymes had originated independently.

Prof Ambler applied a similar methodology to investigate the origins of chloroplasts and mitochondria. He showed that there is close sequence similarity between cytochromes and copper proteins from photosynthetic bacteria and the equivalent proteins of chloroplasts, and between the sequences of cytochromes from some bacteria and those of mitochondria. These studies suggested that organisms evolved both by mutation and selection of their genomes and by the acquisition of genes that had evolved in separate organisms. Such lateral gene transfer occurred at very high frequency for functions like antibiotic resistance, as shown by his studies of penicillinases. Such information is crucial in world where antibiotic resistance is increasingly a medical problem.

The use of sequence information to answer evolutionary questions is now commonplace. Today these sequences are obtained from studies of nucleic acids but when Prof Ambler did much of his work no rapid methods were available for sequencing nucleic acids and the accuracy of the methods that were developed was unclear.

During the latter part of his working life, the interests of most molecular biologists were directed towards the sequences and properties of nucleic acids. Prof Ambler was an invaluable colleague during this period, providing a reliable and helpful source of information on all aspects of protein chemistry to those in need of advice. The pendulum is swinging back and during recent years Prof Ambler had the pleasure of seeing proteins return to the fore.

He has two daughters, Anne and Jane, with Pat. In 1990, after the breakup with his first wife, he met Sue Hewlett again who had worked in the same laboratory as him back in 1969. They married in 1994. Sue had four daughters. The younger two, Gemma and Nicola became effectively Richard's daughters and Heidi and Juliet became part of the family too. Sue died in 2003.

He is survived by daughters and grandchildren: Anne, and her children Jane and Richard; Jane, her husband Dave, and their children Katy and Sarah; Juliet and Alan and daughters Elysia and Poppy; Heidi and her daughter Aimee; Nicola and David (whose wedding celebrations Richard enjoyed with all his family just a few weeks before his death), Gemma and her fiance Lloyd. Jane Conway (his dear friend) has provided companionship in the last few years.

He had a wide range of non-scientific interests, particularly archaeology, and was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. He could always be relied upon to provide an accurate answer, backed up by an appropriate reference book, to all questions no matter how esoteric. His house was often frequented by visitors from around the world mixing his scientific and family life in a welcome way. His companionship, common sense and mischievous wit will be missed by his colleagues and family alike.