It was summer jobs washing dishes and growing E. coli for noted American biologist Sol Spiegelman that inspired a teenage W. Ford Doolittle with the passion and curiosity to understand life in its simplest forms.
Now a Professor Emeritus, Dr. Doolittle has been at the forefront of fundamental research in evolutionary biology for over four decades. He is one of the world’s top molecular geneticists, having spent his career exploring the earliest stages of cell evolution and the forces and mechanisms determining the structure of genomes.
The Dalhousie University molecular biologist initially faced heavy criticism for his 1999 study arguing that, because of a process called lateral gene transfer (LGT), Darwin’s evolutionary tree is an inadequate model for understanding two-thirds of life’s history on Earth. LGT—gene-swapping prevalent among miniscule life forms like bacteria—is now accepted as one of the major forces driving microbial genome evolution, including the spread of antibiotic resistance and the origin of new pathogens.
Dr. Doolittle is currently the senior member of one of seven Canadian teams participating in the international human microbiome project—described by some scientists as the second Human Genome Project—to characterize the bacteria in and on our bodies and assess their role in health and disease.
He has published more than 270 articles in the world’s leading journals and supervised 31 postdoctoral fellows and 35 graduate and undergraduate students. A remarkable 80 per cent of his Ph.D. and postdoctoral trainees are now university faculty or senior researchers in industry or government.
Dr. Doolittle has received numerous awards and honours for his research, including the Award of Excellence from the Genetics Society of Canada and, as of 2014, the NSERC Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and a member of the US National Academy of Sciences.