In conversation with...John Love

12 March 2014 - By: Bethan Wolfenden

In Conversation with...John Love

John Love

By Bethan Wolfenden

I meet John in London where he is hosting the SEB Synthetic Biology Symposium. One of his postdocs introduces me, excited to present her fascinating professor. As the Chair of the SEB Cell Section, John aims to involve younger scientists in designing symposia and focus on their research interests. “The SEB mixes up scientific generations very well,” he explains, “We want to give everyone the opportunity to talk”. Fittingly, John himself presented his research for the first time as a PhD student to the SEB when studying calcium signalling in Edinburgh. This then led him to NASA, where John focused his research on the influence of calcium signalling on gravity perception in roots.

John says NASA opened his eyes to inter-collaborative research, and he shares this approach with his students. With his colleagues, John drives iGEM at Exeter, a synthetic biology competition for undergraduate students. Students are really important to John, who jokes “When research gets you down, students pick you up and vice versa!”. Teaching early students is his passion, in particular his third year project undergraduates. 

“Science is about a method – a way of understanding the world around you.” says John. “You come to science because an aspect of nature fascinates you – you have a ‘wonder moment’”. When asked how he moved into biofuels, John says it happened almost by accident when he met colleague Rob Lee at a Bobby Jones Scholar Alumni evening. Discussing their research, they realised they were both curious to solve the problem of biofuels. 

In comparison to highly condensed energy sources that use single refineries, a biomass-based fuel would require multiple local installations, lending itself to decentralised control. “What would a biomass based economy look like geographically?” John questions. “And what would be the sociological repercussions?” 
One of the challenges John faces is the media’s lack of awareness of the inherent complexity of fuel infrastructure.

Retail fuels are a complex product with over 250 different blends in the UK alone, and petrol blends respond to local conditions and markets. “If you drove a car from Madrid to Norway in the winter, the Spanish diesel in your tank would virtually gel when you reached Norway!” While adding new biofuel compounds requires changing and testing the new fuel blend, bioalkanes mimic original fossil fuels and present an easier alternative.

“The only way to tell the difference between a bioalkane and a geological alkane is C14 dating.” John clarifies: “One’s a fossil and the other one’s not.” 

Running a Formula One car on bioalkanes would be the ideal proof of principle for John. “Obviously it would have to be a good Formula One car, a Ferrari or a Lotus” he quips. And if that succeeded? The next step would be synthetic jet fuel!


Category: Cell Biology
Bethan Wolfenden-RS

Bethan Wolfenden

Bethan Started writing for the SEB Magazine in January 2014. She studied Biochemistry at UCL where she started running science journalism workshops for local students.