In 1990, Adrian Bird became Buchanan Professor of Genetics at the University of Edinburgh. He helped create the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology, also in Edinburgh, and served as its director from 1999 until 2011, when he was succeeded by David Tollervey. From 2000 to 2010, he was also a governor of the Wellcome Trust, serving as deputy chairman during the latter three years.
Bird's research has focused on CpG islands and their associated binding-factor MeCP2. He led the team which first identified CpG islands—originally named "HpaII tiny fragments"—in vertebrate genomes. These are short genomic regions with a high density of CpG dinucleotides, and are commonly found in an unmethylated state within or nearby to an active gene's promoter.
Bird's group discovered that the MeCP2 protein binds specifically to methylated CpG sites, and further that disruption of this interaction causes the autism spectrum disorder Rett syndrome. The Bird lab also implicated nuclear receptor co-repressor 1 as an important binding partner in the MeCP2/methyl-CpG interaction.
In 2007 the Bird laboratory published a paper in the journal Science describing a proof-of-principle that the murine equivalent of Rett syndrome could be successfully reversed in laboratory mice. This was accomplished by reintroducing a functional MeCP2 gene and proved successful even when the condition was at an advanced stage, hinting at the possibility of a gene therapy approach to curing the human disease in the future.
Adrian Bird is the leading authority on DNA methylation in animal cells. He demonstrated a rolling circle mechanism for ribosomal gene amplification. He showed that DNA methylation sites can be mapped using restriction enzymes and thus showed semi-conservative copying of methylation patterns. He showed convincingly that the doublet CpG is a source of mutation in vertebrates which led to the use of 'GpG' restriction enzymes to detect polymorphisms linked to genetic diseases. He discovered unmethylated 'HTF' islands at the 5i ends of housekeeping genes. This discovery has allowed new strategies for mapping and identifying genes and it has allowed Bird to propose that the unmethylated HTF islands identify DNA sequences to be kept constantly available within the nucleus.
Bird was awarded the Gabor Medal in 1999 "in recognition of his pioneering work in the study of global mechanisms by which transcription of the mammalian genome is regulated and for his exploration into the molecular basis of fundamental biological mechanisms, particularly his development of ways of analysing methylation patterns of eukaryotic DNA using endonucleases and the discovery of and continued research into a new class of DNA sequences found in all vertebrates". He received the Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine in the same year, and was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen's Birthday Honours in 2005.
Adrian Bird is married to fellow geneticist Cathy Abbott and has four children. At age 66, Bird was quoted as having no plans to retire, saying "we [the research group] are still funded well and our work is still published in journals and as long as that continues, so will I."
^Lewis, J. D.; Meehan, R. R.; Henzel, W. J.; Maurer-Fogy, I; Jeppesen, P; Klein, F; Bird, A (1992). "Purification, sequence, and cellular localization of a novel chromosomal protein that binds to methylated DNA". Cell. 69 (6): 905–14. doi:10.1016/0092-8674(92)90610-O. PMID1606614.
^Nan, X; Ng, H. H.; Johnson, C. A.; Laherty, C. D.; Turner, B. M.; Eisenman, R. N.; Bird, A (1998). "Transcriptional repression by the methyl-CpG-binding protein MeCP2 involves a histone deacetylase complex". Nature. 393 (6683): 386–9. doi:10.1038/30764. PMID9620804.