Obituary: Professor Richard Penry Ambler, MA, PhD,scientist

Born: 26 May, 1933, in Bexley Heath. Died: 27 December, 2013, in Edinburgh, aged 80

Professor Richard Ambler: Edinburgh University-based scientist who researched antibiotics resistance
Professor Richard Ambler: Edinburgh University-based scientist who researched antibiotics resistance

Richard Ambler was born in Bexley Heath in 1933. In 1940 Richard moved with his family to Poona where his father (Dr Henry Ambler) a government chemist, had responsibility for explosives research and Ambler spent his early childhood in India before returning to England, to boarding school.

His mother, Anne Evans, was a civil servant. In 1954 he entered the University of Cambridge (Pembroke College) to study natural sciences and 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.

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This was followed by three years of postdoctoral research with Sanger in the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. It was at Cambridge that 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 Ambler was invited to join the department 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 re- organisation 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.

Ambler’s 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.

Ambler was attracted to Edinburgh because of Martin Pollock’s interest in penicillin- resistance in bacteria. Much of the resistance is because of the production of an enzyme, penicillinase or lactamase, which destroys the antibiotic.

Resistance is seen in very diverse bacteria and 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. 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 a 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 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. 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 he had the pleasure of seeing proteins return to the fore.

Amble and his first wife, Pat, had two daughters, Anne and Jane. In 1990, after they broke up, he met Sue Hewlett, 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, effectively became Ambler’s daughters and Heidi and Juliet became part of the family too. Sue sadly died in 2003.

Ambler 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 Ambler enjoyed with all his family just a few weeks before his death), Gemma and her fiancé Lloyd.

Jane Conway, his dear friend, provided companionship in the last few years.

Ambler 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 very welcome way.

His companionship, common sense and mischievous wit will be missed by his colleagues and family alike.