Continuing our series of articles on Great British bioscience pioneers, we take a look at the career of Professor Simon McQueen Mason, Director of the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP) and Chair in Materials Biology at University of York. His pioneering research has looked at new ways of producing biofuels and chemicals from woody plant biomass.
How did your bioscience career first begin?
I left school at 17 and worked as a professional fisherman, skippering my own boat for several years. During that time I developed a fascination with the workings of the world around me, and at the age of 26 entered formal studies at Portsmouth Polytechnic College, from where I eventually received a first class honours in Biological Sciences. I then completed a PhD in Plant Physiology at The Pennsylvania State University, and returned to the UK in 1994 having been awarded a Royal Society University Research Fellowship to work on the molecular mechanisms underpinning plant cell wall mechanical properties, at the Biology Department of the University of York.
What are you working on now?
I am currently the Director of the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP) in the Biology Department at York. This is perhaps a reflection of the way that the focus of my work has shifted to more applied areas, looking into the use of lignocellulosic (woody) plant biomass as an industrial feedstock for the production of renewable fuels and chemicals. About half of my research group work on understanding what makes lignocellulosic materials difficult to break down into simple sugars and other useful chemicals, using plant molecular genetics and biochemistry. The other half of the team is researching the discovery of new enzymes for the deconstruction of lignocellulosic materials. A major focus of this work is to understand how a marine wood-boreing crustacean (commonly known as the Gribble) digests wood without microbial assistance, and how it maintains a microbe-free digestive tract.
What advances have you seen in your chosen field in the last 20 years?
Curiously, this is my twentieth year as an independent investigator, making my group the same age as the BBSRC. I spent a considerable amount of my early career cloning and sequencing genes manually. I would say the most significant advances in the last 20 years have been technology driven. In particular the increased volumes and decreased costs of DNA sequencing in recent years have changed the ways we approach biological research. I can remember, in the early 1990s, looking at a growing hypocotyl (the organ I was using to study plant growth) and thinking how marvellous it would be to know all the genes being expressed in that tissue, something that is now easily achievable. These sequencing technologies have greatly empowered our approaches to gene discovery and new bioinformatic tools and high-throughput sensitive analytical methods are adding further power to our science. The big challenges now come in being able to take truly systems-based approaches to understanding biological phenomena in all their complexity.
What are the five key bioscience milestones that you've been part of?
- 1992 Identification of proteins called expansins that catalyse cell wall extension during plant growth
- 1995 Demonstrating that expansins act by disrupting hydrogen bonds between cellulose and hemicellulose, thereby plasticising plant cell walls during growth
- 2003 Showing that the remarkable elasticity of the cell walls of stomatal guard cells in plants is underpinned by cell wall polysaccharides called acidic pectins and arabinans
- 2010 Characterisation of the genes expressed in the digestive system of Limnoria quadripunctata (known colloquially as Gribble), a marine borer that digests wood without microbial assistance
- 2013-14 Uncovering the novel biochemical processes that Limnoria quadripunctata uses for wood digestion in the absence of microbes
How has BBSRC supported you throughout your career?
I have had BBSRC funding fairly continuously since 1998 and this has been pivotal to my research. I am particularly grateful for funding that has allowed me to explore new and unusual areas of work, which are sometimes rather risky and haven't always paid off. BBSRC funding has enabled me to work in areas of industrial relevance that I believe will help society move to more sustainable ways of producing fuels and chemicals; this bigger agenda in which to strive for research excellence is something that motivates and inspires me. Being part of the BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre has been extremely important in helping to build and sustain a number of highly beneficial new collaborative projects. BBSRC funding has allowed me to forge productive on-going collaborations in Brazil and Vietnam in the area of lignocellulosic biofuels. I am currently the Director of the BBSRC-funded Lignocellulosic Biorefinery Network (LBNet). LBNet is establishing an active community of industrial practitioners and academic researchers dedicated to creating economic value by developing novel chemical, material and fuel processes using lignocellulosic biomass instead of petroleum-derived inputs.