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This medal is awarded to the individual who has, in the view of the assessors, made the most distinguished contribution to the Life Sciences, including Biology, Biochemistry, Pharmacology, Nutritional Sciences, Hydrobiology, and other cognate or related areas. It is awarded to Dr. John Fuller Atkins.

John Atkins is internationally renowned for his research in the field of molecular genetics. The Genetic Code, which was cracked in the early 1960s, lies at the heart of protein synthesis and life as we know it. It relates the base sequences of genes to the amino acid sequences of proteins. Crick and others predicted that the code was always triplet, that it was the same in all genes in all organisms, and that it was decoded in the same way at all times, i.e. that it was universal.

In 1968, as a PhD student in Dublin, John Atkins found the first evidence that the code is not always a triplet showing that non-triplet decoding occurred at a low level in ordinary cells. Over the next 40 years he went on to discover and explain many other examples in which the code varies from the universal within specific sequences in a special way, for which he has coined the name recoding. He has found and/or explained recoding in bacteria, yeast and diverse viruses including those for plants and animals. Recoding is now recognised as an important and highly diverse phenomenon, a set of variations on the main ‘universal’ code.

In 1981, quite early in his career, Atkins was awarded an ScD for his published work, on the advice of Nobel Prize Winner Fred Sanger. Today he is undoubtedly one the leading authorities in the world on the genetic code itself and on the mechanism by which the sequences of codons in mRNA molecules are translated by ribosomes and tRNAs into amino acid sequences. His work has contributed very significantly to our understanding of the structure and function of mRNA, tRNA, ribosomes and proteins that regulate translation, and to their evolution. He has published more than 100 important original studies in major journals.

His position in the field was further established by his publication of reviews in both the Annual Review of Biochemistry and the Annual Review of Genetics, and his co-editorship of the three volumes of RNA World. The last two volumes of RNA World have been co-edited with the Nobel Prizewinner, Tom Cech. He was the first Irish person to be elected to the European Molecular Biology Organisation and the first Director of Biotechnology of Science Foundation Ireland. He holds an SFI Professorship at UCC and has a vigorous and highly original research programme.

In summary, Atkins is admired worldwide among the distinguished group of molecular biologists who continue to find surprises as they probe the finer points of the central mechanisms of information transfer, from DNA and/or RNA to protein, in the cell.