In conversation with John Love

30 November 2019 - By: Alex Evans

In conversation with John Love


It’s very much about the legacy that you can leave, as well as what you do yourself,” says John Love, Professor of Synthetic Biology at the University of Exeter and current SEB Treasurer.

AE: Hi John, so where did your interest in synthetic biology begin?

JL: Synthetic biology is a relatively recent development in science that is combining mathematics, modelling and molecular biology. My particular focus has been the development of new biofuels from plant biomass or algae. We’d been working on this for about 10 years but a big problem was that when we tried to translate from lab to industry, we found that processing microbial biomass into biofuel just wasn’t an economically valid way to go – and ideally, we needed microbes that produced alkenes without all the processing. Alkenes make up the fuel we use in cars, so if our bugs could spit out alkenes directly, the process would be a lot more financially viable. In nature, there are lots of organisms that naturally produce alkenes at very low levels – plants, algae and birds use small amounts of them for their waterproofing properties – and even humans have them in the oils in our skin. But we can’t harvest alkenes from natural organisms as they just don’t produce enough, but we now have the technology to re-engineer organisms artificially to generate biological mimics of fossil fuels. Once we had crossed this theoretical bridge, actually doing it was surprisingly simple – a lot of the synthetic biology technology just slotted into place and we’ve never looked back. Instead, we’re now looking to re-engineer these organisms more fundamentally so that they can live happily in a bio-reactor and still produce the fuel that we’re after.

AE: So, it sounds like your research is very driven towards solving real-world problems.

JL: Yes, the applications of this research are front and centre – and that’s what excites me. Science is focused on solving problems (as well as sometimes causing problems) and I really like that synthetic biology builds an academic framework for a series of different disciplines that have now converged to deal with these real-world issues. I’m also really excited that synthetic biology is pulling in researchers from the humanities, as the effect of this field of research and its applications on the real world involves a certain level of business acumen and knowledge of how the public will react to these scientific advances – so now I’m working with people from across the entire university, and I find this particularly exciting. Science should open you up to the world instead of keeping researchers in silos, and synthetic biology is one area that is really helping to break these silos open.

AE: You’re clearly very passionate about the openness of science, what do you enjoy most about your research?

JL: The thing that really excites me about this research is the novelty and openness. Every year we have undergraduate project students in our lab and the ones that I always find the most stirring are the ones that are curiosity-driven, where the final result is secondary to learning the experimental process. This gives us a great latitude to explore new ways of learning since scientists that are very early in their careers, especially undergraduates, aren’t shy about asking questions that maybe more established researchers would disregard. In fact, the other day I was headed to the SEB offices for a meeting and I was on the Bakerloo underground line and wondered how the train carriages actually got so deep underground. To some people, the answer might be obvious, but I just don’t know – and that’s what I like about science and synthetic biology in particular, the openness to asking questions of lots of different people in order to dig even deeper.

AE: Speaking of students, I’ve heard that your lab has been involved with the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition – can you tell me more about that?

JL: iGEM is a synthetic biology competition that first started at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2003, and has since grown into an international student-led competition that attracts teams of university students from all over the world. iGEM is such a great initiative and it’s something that the SEB actually supported at its inception! I’m a judge at the competition and we also have our own University of Exeter team but obviously, I don’t judge my own team! There are some brilliant forward-thinking projects and this past year, our student team came up with a great problem-solving idea. They wanted to work on controlling the world’s plastic contamination, but since they couldn’t release a GMO directly into the environment, they looked further into the heart of the problem and found that 39% of microplastic pollution comes from laundry. So, they devised a filter and an enzyme to degrade the plastic microfibres released in the wash, and right now, they’ve actually set-up a start-up organisation and are working with big companies to make this idea a reality!

AE: That sounds fantastic! As well as your position as the current SEB Treasurer, you’ve also held the role of the Cell Section Chair. What is it about the SEB that keeps you engaging?

JL: In a nutshell, it’s the students and early career scientists. In universities now, the number of students we have can make it hard to teach them about hands-on empirical science in the laboratory – which is where it should really be happening. For students and early career scientists, the SEB is a fantastic platform where these PhD students can come and chat with other early career researchers or more established researchers to network, build their own careers and to build and share their own curiosities. At our Annual Main Meeting, we have a policy of encouraging young researchers to talk and present in the same sessions as the most eminent researchers in the field. Because of this, we find that the SEB attracts scientists who are also very keen on the educational and networking aspects of the conference, as well as the generation of good science. Plus, it’s a nice place to hang out!

AE: What have been the proudest moments of your career so far?

JL: For me, getting my PhD was a really proud moment – and going beyond that, when I got my first publication in the scientific literature was another achievement that I was very proud of. Now however, when I see my students completing their own PhDs and get their own publications, I’m very proud of that too. When I see people that I’ve taught at university giving a great talk or a conference, obviously I didn’t do any of the work, but when they tell you that you were part of their inspiration, then that really rocks for me. I’m also proud of the fact that our research in synthetic biology is trying to solve global issues and de-carbonise the transportation sector, even though we’re just a small cog in a massive machine, we’re still striving towards something great.

AE: As SEB Treasurer, if you could spend all of the annual budget on one thing – what would it be?

JL: I would love to endow the money towards a fully-staffed laboratory where curious students from all over the UK could come and carry out real experiments. I am imagining a little institute somewhere that would be open and welcoming to all young scientists where the research could be free from organisational politics - just people coming together to experiment with a range of different subjects or learn new ways of working.