Sir John won his award jointly with Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University for their work on reprogramming ordinary cells into immature stem cells.
They found that the specialization of cells is reversible, and that the cells can be reprogrammed to become immature cells able to develop into all tissues of the body.
“Their findings have revolutionised our understanding of how cells and organisms develop,” said the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institutet in a press release announcing the award.
It was during his time at Oxford’s Department of Zoology that Sir John started his research, hypothesizing that the genome of a mature cell might still contain all the information needed to drive its development into all the different cell types of an organism.
In his classic experiment, published in 1962, he replaced the immature cell nucleus in an egg cell of a frog with the nucleus from a mature intestinal cell. This modified egg cell developed into a normal tadpole. He found that all the information needed to develop all cells in the frog were in the DNA of the mature cell.
Oxford stem cell biologist Professor Sir Richard Gardner said Sir John’s Nobel Prize is “entirely warranted”. He added that he has been “a highly regarded leader in the field for many, many years.”
Julian Savulescu, Uehiro Professor of Practical Ethics at Oxford was equally full of praise, saying: “This is not only a giant leap for science, it is a giant leap for mankind.”
Professor Chris Graham of Oxford University’s Department of Zoology – one of Sir John’s first students who worked with him at Oxford in the 1960s – agreed, saying: ”He showed that you could take several nuclei from one individual and produce genetically identical animals – that was his great achievement.
“People had talked about cloning a good deal but with John Gurdon’s work it became a reality.”
Sir John B Gurdon did his undergraduate degree at Christ Church, Oxford, starting off studying Classics but switching to Zoology. He received his doctorate from the University of Oxford in 1960, and returned to Oxford as Assistant Lecturer in Zoology in 1962.
He joined Cambridge University in 1972 and has served as Professor of Cell Biology and Master of Magdalene College. Gurdon is currently at the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge.