Antibiotics – Professor Matt Hutchings

Professor Matt Hutchings
Professor Matt Hutchings.

I am pleased to be able to bring you another interview. This week we get to hear form Matt Hutchings who is a professor of Molecular Microbiology, and Associate Dean for Enterprise at the University of East Anglia (UEA). Did you ever consider getting antibiotics from ants? No? Well, that is exactly what Matt’s research group is studying! At least that’s part of what they do. I was first introduced to Matt in January by Professor Matt Gage who I have previously interviewed. Matt H. instantly came across as someone who is enthusiastic about sharing scientific research with the general public. This is backed up by the fact that he has been interviewed on BBC Radio 4, the BBC’s The One Show, CNN’s Vital Signs, as well as being prolific on Twitter. So I am honoured that he chose to let me interview him, and here is what he had to say…

 

How would you describe your work to a 10yr old?

Most of the antibiotics we take when we get sick are natural products made by bacteria and fungi that live in the soil. Drug companies grow the microbes in huge tanks, purify the antibiotics – sometimes modify them slightly to make them safe – and then sell them as liquid or tablet medicines.

One part of our work is to try and understand why the microbes make these antibiotics – what is their function in nature? The other part is to understand how insects and plants use these antibiotics. They form partnerships called symbioses with the bacteria, they let them live on their bodies and feed them and in return the plant or animal gets to use the antibiotics made by the bacteria as protection against infection.

We want to know how the plants and insects (in this case leafcutter ants) make friends with the bacteria and how they make them produce antibiotics.  We also hope to find new antibiotics from these weird and wonderful places that might one day be used as new medicines.

Leaf Cutter Ants
Leaf Cutter Ants

Why did you choose this as a profession?

I’m not sure I ever really made a conscious choice. I liked biology at school but left after getting two A Levels to work as a laboratory assistant at St Helier hospital in London. One of the doctors there convinced me I should go to University so I went and studied Biology at Portsmouth and loved it so much I did a PhD in Southampton and got hooked on research.

I moved to Norwich to do postdoctoral research and realised the only way to carry on doing research after two postdoctoral positions was to start my own research group. I was lucky enough to get a job in the School of Biology at UEA.

Matt and his ant colony
Matt and his ant colony

Scientific research is full of challenges; can you share some of your biggest challenges, and how you overcame them?

The research itself is challenging but one of the things I find hardest to deal with is applying for research funding because quite often those grant applications are rejected (success rates range from around 10-20% at the research councils). You have to grow a thick skin to survive as an academic and not take rejection personally. You also have to learn the art of grant writing. The most helpful thing for me in this regard was to read successful grant applications written by my colleagues. I also volunteered to sit one of the research council committees that assess all the submitted grants – this is a great way to learn and I recommend it to anyone who is starting out on an independent research career.

How would you define success as a scientific researcher for you personally?

The science itself is very satisfying and success is usually measured in terms of grants won and papers published. I take great pleasure and pride in every paper we publish and we try to do applied research that might improve the world but one of the greatest aspects of the job is to see the young scientists that have trained in my lab go out into the world and have successful and rewarding careers. I think this has a bigger impact on the world than any of the research we do.

Ant Colony Up Close
Ant Colony Up Close

What excites you about your current projects?

I’m really excited about a project we are running which is aimed at understanding how plants recruit antibiotic-producing Streptomyces bacteria to their roots. This is fascinating but also has important implications for agriculture because engineering beneficial plant-microbe interactions could enhance crop yields and reduce the use of pesticides and other agrichemicals. This is a continuation of work we’ve done to understand microbiome assembly using leafcutter ants as a model organism.

ant colony setup
ant colony study setup

We have also discovered one of the master regulators of antibiotic production in actinomycete bacteria and we think we can to use this to make the bacteria produce even more antibiotics. Loads of cool stuff going on right now and it all excites me!

What advice, that has impacted your career, would you like to share with any scientists reading this?

A good piece of advice I received is not to get too focused in on one small problem. Any project can be fascinating to the person doing it but if you want to run a successful research group you need to tackle big questions that are important to humans, be it health, food security of whatever.

Try and form collaborations with scientists on other disciplines to take on big problems – it is more fun working in a team and you can do better science. Above all enjoy it!

If another scientist wanted to collaborate with you, what is the best way for them to connect with you?

Either email me at m.hutchings@uea.ac.uk or connect on Twitter @matthutchings10.

 

Many thanks to Matt for taking time to respond to these questions and share some insights into his research. I love that Matt’s research aligns with the advice he gives about tackling the big questions and not getting bogged down with one small question. And Matt isn’t the first person I’ve interviewed to promote multidisciplinary collaborations – this is something that a number of top scientists and business people encourage.

If you’re running a research group, or a young scientist about to embark on a research career, what one thing can you do to ensure that your research takes on a collaborative multidisciplinary approach? Let me know in the comments below.

 

Until next time, here’s a live video of Matt’s leafcutter ant colony (it will be dark at night):

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