Continuing our series of articles on Great British bioscience pioneers, we take a look at Richard Mithen, programme leader at the Institute of Food Research which receives strategic funding from BBSRC, whose research has been pivotal in the development of a super broccoli that is available in supermarkets across the UK. This body of work, which has spanned more than 20 years, has provided insights into the role of foods in promoting health and has shown how this understanding can lead to the development of potentially more nutritious varieties of vegetables.
How did your bioscience career first begin?
I rather drifted into doing a degree in plant sciences, and then a PhD at the University of East Anglia (UEA). While there, I managed to get invited to join an expedition to collect wild Brassica species from southern Italy, and the director of the John Innes Centre, Professor Harold Woolhouse, kindly provided some financial assistance. Following my PhD, I spent a further four years collecting wild plants in Africa. This was a wonderful experience and very much stimulated my interest in pursuing a career in research.
What are you working on now?
My research is concerned with how diets rich in cruciferous vegetables can maintain and promote heath. This research originated from the plant collecting I undertook in Italy as I used a wild Brassica that we'd collected in Sicily to develop a broccoli cultivar with high levels of a particular compound called glucoraphanin, which may provide health benefits.
My current focus is a dietary intervention study with men who have localised prostate cancer. We are investigating how a diet rich in high glucoraphanin broccoli may modify lipid metabolism to prevent tumour growth.
What advances have you seen in your chosen field in the last 20 years?
Where do you start? Genomics has revolutionised our understanding of many aspects of biology – from the evolution and organisation of plant genomes, to how changes in the diet may have subtle effects on the expression of many human genes with consequences on metabolism and health. I would also say that developments in bench top mass spectroscopy have greatly facilitated our ability to analyse both human and plant metabolites.
What are the five key bioscience milestones that you've been part of and when did these occur?
- Early 1990s Developed the first Brassica genetic linkage maps with RFLP markers and began mapping genes for agronomic traits onto these linkage maps. Alongside maps created for other crop plants, this work has led to great insights into the evolution of crop genomes and has underpinned their subsequent sequencing
- Early 1990s Developed a biochemical genetic model of glucosinolate biosynthesis in Arabidopsis, which was subsequently used by other research groups to clone all the genes in the glucosinolate biosynthetic pathway
- 2004 First human intervention studies with the high glucoraphanin broccoli took place involving the use of whole genome human microarrays to quantify changes in gene expression from human prostate biopsy samples obtained before and after dietary intervention
- 2012 Nearly two decades of research came together with the commercial launch of a high glucoraphanin variety of broccoli, sold under the trade name Beneforte
- 2012 onwards Working with the prostate cancer research community to investigate how food and diet may be able to reduce the progression of localised prostate cancer into more aggressive forms of this disease
How has BBSRC supported you throughout your career?
I have worked in BBSRC-supported institutes for much of my career, firstly as a group leader at the John Innes Centre, and secondly as a research leader at the Institute of Food Research, and I have received excellent support from BBSRC, for which I am most grateful.