Richard Roberts was born in Derby, England. His family moved to Bath when he was four. His father was very supportive of Roberts' inquisitive nature. He helped him build a chemistry lab in the basement where Roberts made and studied fireworks and other chemicals.
This interest in chemistry plus a fascination with games and puzzles led him to pursue a research career. It was a chance to be a detective and solve chemical puzzles in the world of science. He graduated from Sheffield University in 1965 and stayed to do graduate work with his organic chemistry professor - one of the few who used problem solving to emphasize the challenge and not the chore of learning.
While finishing his Ph.D., Roberts read John Kendrew's book, Thread of Life: An Introduction to Molecular Biology. This introduction to the early history of crystallography and molecular biology fascinated Roberts. He decided to switch fields and chose a lab that would allow him to go into molecular biology. For a post-doctoral tenure, Roberts went to Harvard to work in Jack Strominger's lab.
At Harvard, Roberts learned the jargon of biochemistry. His project involved sequencing a tRNA involved in bacterial cell wall biosynthesis. Based on his readings he decided that the radioactive method of sequencing being developed by Fred Sanger in Cambridge was the best. In 1970, he went to Cambridge, learned the technique and when he came back, Roberts taught many of the area scientists how to sequence the Sanger way.
In 1972, after a 10-minute interview, James Watson offered Roberts a position at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Watson wanted him to sequence the DNA of SV40, a virus. Roberts accepted the position and started investigating the enzyme Endonuclease R which he heard about from Dan Nathans. The enzyme cut DNA into specific pieces. Roberts realized that if there were more of these enzymes, he could use them to cut DNA into manageable sizes and thus use them in sequencing. Soon Roberts and his lab had a whole collection of restriction enzymes. During the '70s and early '80s, about 75 out of 100 known enzymes were isolated in Roberts' lab.
Some of these restriction enzymes were used to map adenovirus DNA, a project in which Phil Sharp, in Joe Sambrook's lab, was also involved. In 1974, Roberts and Richard Gelinas started working with the adenovirus mRNA. They reasoned they could identify the DNA promoter region by sequencing the 5' end of the mRNA and then mapping it to the DNA. The promoter would be upstream of the 5' end of the mRNA. Through the course of their experiments, they discovered biochemical proof that the genes in adenovirus were split. Roberts then devised the electron microscope experiments that proved visually that this was true. In 1993, Roberts shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Phil Sharp for the discovery of the split gene.
Roberts also helped develop one of the first computer programs that maps and analyzes DNA restriction enzyme fragments. He was an early advocate of computer use in molecular biology.
In 1992, Roberts moved to New England Biolabs - a company where he is now one of two Research Directors. In addition to basic research, the company makes and sells research reagents and is noted for its production of restriction enzymes.
Roberts is still fascinated by puzzles and games. His favorite is croquet, which he says combines the skill of snooker with the strategy of chess. His problem-solving nature is tempered with a dry sense of humor as evidenced by his appearance in "The Stud Muffins of Science 1997 Calendar," and his annual trip to the Ig Nobel Awards (the "opposite" of the Nobels) at Harvard University.