In conversation with... Lee Sweetlove

01 November 2017 - By: Angie Burnett

In conversation with... Lee Sweetlove

Lee Sweetlove

Lee Sweetlove, Professor at the University of Oxford and recently appointed Editor in Chief at The Plant Journal talks to agricultural biotechnology consultant Angie Burnett.

AB: Your research1 aims to increase understanding of plant metabolism, to improve the productivity and quality of crop plant. What exactly is metabolism, and why is it so important?

Metabolism is the hundreds of biochemical reactions that happen in cells to convert nutrient inputs into biochemical energy and build all the structural components of the cell required for growth. So, it’s pretty important! No metabolism, no growth. The most striking explanation I have heard of the importance of metabolism is that without metabolism, all reactions would reach their equilibrium position – and biochemical equilibrium is death.

AB: What first got you interested in metabolic engineering?

It’s quite a long story, and it wasn’t what I originally wanted to do when I was an undergrad. But for various reasons and a bit of random chance, I did a sandwich year at a plant biotech company (then called Advanced Technologies Cambridge, now part of British American Tobacco) who were trying to engineer metabolism in potato to improve tuber yield and starch content. It was a massively important year in my life. Not only did I catch the research bug, but I also realised that we had nowhere near enough knowledge to engineer the complex metabolic network to do what we wanted. Nearly 30 years later, I am still trying to gather enough knowledge, but computational modelling has taken us a huge step in the right direction.

AB: You use both computational and experimental approaches in your research. How well do these approaches complement each other?

Very well. We use computational models of metabolic networks to make predictions about how to make them more efficient, and then test those predictions using genetic engineering in a range of plant species.

AB: Tell me about the multinational consortium you are leading, SOURSI.

SOURSI2 stands for source-sink and the full project title is “simultaneous manipulation of source and sink metabolism for improved crop yield”. It’s a tri-national consortium, funded by the ERA-CAPS scheme, involving Ralph Bock and Ally Fernie at the Max-Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology, and Doris Rentsch at the University of Bern. We are trying to take a big step forward in plant metabolic engineering by combining multiple different transgenes to manipulate enzymes and transporters right across the plant from source to sink tissues. The total count is 20 transgenes and we are currently screening a library of transgenic tomato plants which we hope will show dramatic increases in fruit yield.

AB: If you could answer one big question in your research field, what would it be?

‘What is metabolite channelling for?’ This is a phenomenon whereby the metabolite product of one enzyme is passed directly to the next enzyme in the pathway, without that metabolite diffusing away into the bulk aqueous phase of the cell. It occurs in all domains of life but there’s a lot of confusion about how it happens and what it is for. My theory is that it’s important for directing flux between alternative branches in the metabolic network.

AB: What’s the best thing about being a researcher?

Being able to follow your own curiosity and set your own agenda. I think this is a rare privilege and it is hugely satisfying to spend your days pursuing the answers to questions that you want to ask. The other aspect of my job that I take great pleasure in is mentoring the young scientists that come through my lab. I have been very fortunate to have worked with some brilliant people and there is nothing that makes me happier than seeing them go off to establish their own careers using the skills they learnt with me.

AB: Tell me about your career path.

Well, after the somewhat random start, once I knew that I wanted to research plant metabolism, it was pretty conventional. I was fortunate enough to get a PhD place at Cambridge in Tom ap Rees’ lab, co-supervised by Mike Burrell of Advanced Technologies who funded the studentship. From there I joined Steven Hill’s new lab at Oxford. Following that, I was taken under the wing of Chris Leaver who was hugely encouraging. He gave me the belief to try to make it on my own and supported me through the three attempts it took to finally get a BBSRC David Phillips Fellowship that started me on my way. I am still at Oxford having climbed the career ladder via a lectureship, readership and now professorship.

AB: And you’ve recently become Editor in Chief at The Plant Journal3, one of the four SEB journals. Congratulations! What will this involve?

That’s a good question and one that I am still finding out the answer to! The main part of the job is to provide strategic leadership of the journal and the editorial board. But there are a lot of other things the editor in chief has to deal with on a day to day basis, including interviews like this!

AB: Tell me about the journal. What makes it special?

TPJ is a fantastic journal and I am very proud to be at the helm. It recently celebrated its 25th year and during that time it has been at the forefront of plant research, publishing leading papers that have made a significant impact on our understanding of all aspects of plant biology. It retains its reputation as one of the most authoritative journals for plant biology, largely due to the efforts of its outstanding editorial board. Unlike many other journals, we have a flat hierarchy in our board, meaning that your paper goes directly to the editor of your choosing (unless they are conflicted or away) and that editor alone decides whether to send your manuscript out to review, selects the reviewers and makes the decision. Our editors work really hard at all of this to make the process as fair, professional and constructive as possible.

AB: I see you have an extensive publication record. How will your work as an academic author impact your new role at TPJ?

As an author, I appreciate concise and fair reviewers’ comments, and a clear steer from the handling editor showing what to pay attention to if my paper is not immediately accepted. I also appreciate a streamlined and efficient submission process. So, these are priorities for me at TPJ.

AB: SEB has a strong focus on early career researchers. Do you have any tips for aspiring authors of scientific papers?

Plenty! A good paper is one that tells a story, so aspiring authors must first work out what their story is. Put the work in context. Explain why it’s important. And spell out what the advance is. But make sure your data actually support that story! The most common mistake I see young authors making is reaching for conclusions that are not fully supported by their data, or are only one interpretation of their data. The other thing that takes people a while to learn (and that includes me) is that good writing is much more about what you have to say than the style in which you say it. Keep it concise, avoid unnecessary jargon. Use short, direct sentences. It will make your paper a whole lot more digestible for the readers. The final piece of advice that I would give is to try not to get disheartened by rejection. All scientists, no matter how lofty their standing, regularly get papers rejected. If you get rejected, it doesn’t mean your research is rubbish, but rather that it needs fine-tuning and improving. Rejection is part of that process and your paper will be better for it in the end. Don’t take it personally!

1. Research and publications:

2. SOURSI consortium:

3. The Plant Journal (TPJ):–313X

Category: The Plant Journal
Angie White- RS

Angie Burnett

Angie Burnett is a consultant in agricultural biotechnologies at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). She read Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge before being awarded the inaugural SEB PhD studentship to investigate source-sink limitations of growth in barley at the University of Sheffield (UK) and Brookhaven National Laboratory (USA), with Colin Osborne, Mark Rees and Alistair Rogers. She is passionate about food security, and has a keen interest and varied experience in science communication and policy.