Dr John Love

Dr John Love

Stepping into the office of John Love, Associate Professor in Plant and Industrial Biotechnology at the University of Exeter, you can’t help but notice his aquarium.

“It’s a bit of beauty, a bit of philosophy and a bit of practical teaching all in one,” he said.

Adding: “When students come in they’re a bit nervous. We talk about the aquarium and it breaks the ice. We talk about corals, global warming, and symbiosis; there are lots of things the aquarium can talk to students about.”

The aquarium’s coral inspires John’s research. Much of it is brightly coloured owing to the green fluorescent protein, the basis for significant cell biology innovation worldwide in the last 20 years.

John recently returned from a field trip to Canada where he’s been investigating another interesting organism, algae.

 “We went as part of our hydrocarbons from algae project,” he explained.

“It was a pristine environment, with no human impact since the last ice age. The algae won’t have been bought there by humans, so we want to know what they’re doing there.”

John has spent a long time looking at such organisms: “For my first nine years at Exeter research was quite speculative and really prospecting in the most general sense. We were trying to find living organisms to apply to industry – we found there weren’t really any.”

This meant John had to change tack: “We adopted the synthetic biology approach, which has been founded on the molecular expertise that’s here, the systems biology, the high throughput sequencing.

“What we’ve tried to do with each technological advancement in biology – they come thick and fast – is to maximise and enhance it, which is where we really add value to industrial sponsors.

“We have our finger on the pulse in terms of developing technology and enhancing and developing it further; last week a research fellow in the lab and I were among four UK academics to attend the SynBioBeta conference in San Francisco – a cauldron for synthetic biology start-ups.”

John has worked with industrial sponsors including Shell. A project investigating how to make bacteria produce biofuels could help solve the world's fuel problems and was recognised at last week's Impact Awards, winning in the technology category.

John’s group also collaborate with other universities: “We’ve recently put in a bid for a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council centre in synthetic biology with [the University of] Bath, which is a bipolar centre for developing oils either for use as nutritional supplements or things like fuel,” he revealed.

“We’re working with Bath as their expertise complements ours. They’re very good at chemical and process engineering and we fit slightly upstream, whereas industrial application is downstream.

“We’re bridging the gap between research process development and commercialisation.”

John uses a variety of resources for his work, including algae, fungi and bacteria – and inspiration for new ideas is never far away.

“The aquarium is a permanent reminder that in nature we can find the raw materials we can apply new things to the future,” he finished.