Colyn Crane-Robinson, Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Portsmouth, was born on 20 October 1935 and died on 5 March 2023. His death marks the end of a career as a world-leading researcher in the field of chromatin structure and epigenetics.
Colyn was born in the Sale area of Greater Manchester to Robin and Marion. After evacuation at the start of World War 2, he returned to Manchester in 1947 and joined Ackworth Secondary School in south-west Yorkshire. At school, he enjoyed cricket, becoming a noted bowler, obtaining the nickname ‘colyncranecricketball’, and later the captain of the first team. He cited his teacher at the time, Mr Harris, as giving him a lasting passion for classical music and secondly, and more critical to his future career, chemistry.
In 1954, Colyn joined Christ Church College, Oxford, where his love for research was fostered. After obtaining a first-class degree, he began his DPhil in the laboratory of H.W. Thompson, a renowned infra-red spectroscopist, working on vibrational–rotational spectra studies of gas-phase molecules. This time was noted by having to construct one’s own gas line, meaning a glass-blowing course had to be undertaken, something Colyn managed but, by his own admission, his creations contained many strange shapes and bubbles!
After his PhD, Colyn took the unusual step of using a newly arranged treaty between the Royal Society and the USSR, to commence a post-doctoral position in Leningrad at the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Here he became fluent in Russian and studied physico-chemical aspects of polymer synthesis. His time was cut short after he met and proposed to a young woman. Marriages to westerners being unfavourable, he was asked to leave the USSR abruptly. He did successfully get her out of the USSR and they went on to have a family together. Upon his return to the UK, Colyn obtained a job at the polymer firm Courtaulds, but when research there was closed abruptly he looked elsewhere for employment, which brought him to the University of Portsmouth.
Colyn arrived in Portsmouth to work in the newly established biophysics laboratory founded by Morton Bradbury. Together they worked on high-resolution NMR studies to investigate conformational changes in biopolymers, producing a series of high-impact Nature publications and leading to an interest in chromatin. Their research moved into detailed studies on the structure of individual histones and then progressed into proposed models of the subunit structure of a eukaryotic chromosome. The group ultimately focused on investigations of histone modifications and their interactions with DNA within the nucleosome, in particular acetylation of the N-terminal tail of histone H4 and its consequential DNA interactions.
In 1988, the discovery of the link between histone H4 acetylation and transcriptionally active chromatin was cemented after the group successfully raised an anti-histone acetyl-specific antibody, alongside their development of the ChIP (chromatin immunoprecipitation) assay. These tools were used to show a strong enrichment in active gene sequences versus inactive in antibody-bound fractions, compared to the input material. In Colyn’s own words, he was “the principal midwife at the birth of ChIPs, using antibodies to modified histones”. The publication from this research became highly cited and remains as a critical statement of this fundamental epigenetic control mechanism.
I joined Colyn’s research laboratory as a Wellcome Research Fellow in 1995. During my time in his laboratory, the work focused on the role of histone H3 K4 methylation in the control of gene expression, work conducted in collaboration with the Kouzarides laboratory at Cambridge. Indeed, Colyn had collaborative projects across the globe; two of the most prolific and long-standing were with Peter Privalov (Johns Hopkins University, USA) and Doncho Staynov (Imperial College London, UK). The first collaboration was on the principles of the thermodynamics of proteins–DNA interactions; the second focused on interactions of the linker histones with the nucleosome structure.
Colyn became a Professor of Biochemistry, taking emeritus status in 2000. His enthusiasm was infectious, and he particularly enjoyed enthusing our younger researchers (PhD, MRes and undergraduates) with his joy for all things scientific. His willingness to communicate his knowledge was continued right to the end; the image shown is from a group research talk given by Colyn only a few months before his passing.