From the scientist’s view: a conversation with … John Sutherland
John Sutherland is a Programme (Group) Leader in the Protein and Nucleic Acid Chemistry (PNAC) Division at the LMB.
He trained as an organic chemist at the University of Oxford. After a year in the United States, he returned to Oxford as a Lecturer in Chemistry, then moved to the University of Manchester as a Professor of Biological Chemistry. He joined the LMB in 2010.
John is interested in the origin of life. How did we get here? In earlier research, his group showed how to synthesise the building blocks of life and they have now almost synthesised all of these components. Building on this, his group is now trying to determine how to string these together to build up higher order structures, such as proteins and nucleic acids.
We recently talked to John about his research and career in science.
What is your earliest memory of science or scientific discovery?
My first recollection of science was a trip to a laboratory with my father, and I remember seeing experiments being done and I remember the smells – and even today I can still remember the same smells.
What inspired you to choose this particular area of science/research?
Ever since I was a young boy I was interested in where we came from, and I didn’t really buy into the sort of explanations I was hearing from non-scientific people. So, I got interested in science as a way of probing that, and then specifically got into chemistry as a very particular way of probing it.
What is the most exciting thing about your work/research?
The work we do I find exciting for a variety of reasons. The most exciting thing to me is the fact that what looks complex in biology is really complexity in the eye of the beholder, if you like, because ultimately it seems that everything stems from reactions of hydrogen cyanide and a few related compounds. So, what I find exciting here is how a few simple compounds can give rise to things that are outwardly complex. If they’re actually inherently favoured to form from hydrogen cyanide, then perhaps they shouldn’t be viewed as complex.
Has there been a pivotal experiment or moment that really moved your research and understanding forward?
There are two experiments, really, that moved our research forward. One was an experiment that other people picked up on and were perhaps more excited by it than we were, and that was about 10-12 years ago – the synthesis of nucleotides. But more exciting to me is the discovery that we can make these large molecules from very, very simple, small molecules just by the use of light and a few simple chemical reagents.
Has there been an experiment or piece of work that didn’t go to plan, but turned out to have a positive, if unexpected, outcome?
Nothing ever goes according to plan. When research councils and various people ask you to present your research plans for the next five years, it’s a bit of a sort of a joke in a sense, because if your research is sufficiently exciting, if it’s not been done before, you don’t know what is going to happen, so the outcome is never exactly what you expect, so the direction you pursue is never exactly what you expect. So, you write these plans for five years and then you do something completely different.
Who has been the biggest influence on your scientific career?
My scientific career has been influenced by a number of people. Initially it was influenced by the people who taught me at university, two very inspiring teachers Peter Atkins and Gordon Lowe, in the University of Oxford. And then, moving on, I was lucky enough to do research with Jack Baldwin, who was the leading organic chemist in Europe at the time – or certainly in the UK. And also, I spent time with Jeremy Knowles in the United States. All of them influenced me. But the one who’s influenced me more than anybody is Albert Eschenmoser, at the ETH in Zurich, who really was 20-30 years ahead of his time and kickstarted serious research on the origin of life by using organic chemistry – high level organic chemistry – to probe it.
What drew you to want to come to LMB and what is special about working here?
I was attracted to the prospect of coming to the LMB because of many positive aspects of LMB life; this amazing research culture, the ability to just dedicate yourself to research, and it was also an opportunity to say farewell to some of the things about universities which I found frustrating; the underfunding and the administrative chores in universities. Having said that, I miss the teaching associated with university and the vibrancy of the universities. We have our own vibrancy here, but it’s a different culture.
What skills do you think you need to be a scientist?
The skills that make a scientist I think are varied. I would recommend that anyone who is aspiring to be a scientist should play to their strengths because if you’re good at something and you can find a way of turning that to science then you are more likely to be successful. In my case I have a good memory and I’ve tried to use that in my research.
What scientific breakthrough would you most like to make or wish you had made?
I’m quite happy with the ones we have made. I would like to make some more before I retire. I think that the origin of life will always be seen by people who are not studying it as something which is going to be a sort of breakthrough moment, and suddenly someone is going to announce ‘we have synthesised life’ but I don’t think it’s going to be like that, I think it’s going to be incremental. Science has a tendency to be incremental. If we go down as being one of the people that have laid the foundations for what turns out to be ultimately a sort of magnificent structure, the scientific explanation for the origin of life, then I’ll be very happy. Of course, I’d also be happy if we turn out to be one of the people who put in the finishing touches of that structure. But contributing to the construction of this scientific edifice which explains how life started is what I find really exciting and important.
If you could interview any scientist (past or present) who would you choose?
Well I’m lucky that I’ve met lots of living scientists and I’ve learnt lots talking to them, so I’d opt for some people from the past. R. B. Woodward was arguably the greatest ever organic chemist and I think it would be fun to have a chat with him. And Charles Darwin, of course, would be someone who’d be very interesting to talk to, to see what his take was, now that all this time has elapsed since he first started writing about evolution. What would he think about chemical evolution? I like to think that if he existed now, if he lived now, that he’d be doing chemistry of the origin of life because that’s where the action is now – but I wouldn’t know until I’d spoken to him.
Is there a part of your job that might surprise people?
I think people have this impression of scientists working away, practically, at the bench. Maybe they’d be a little surprised that I spend most of my time sitting in front of a computer and don’t actually do any experiments. I’m lucky enough to have a team of people who are very talented to do those experiments for me, so I direct them. And I think perhaps people have a feeling that even those of us who get older in science actually do experiments when most of us don’t.
What has been the biggest challenge in your research/career?
The biggest challenge in what I do is trying to raise money and engage the brightest young people and excite them and try and attract them into the subject. So those are two perennial challenges. Funding research and getting the brightest minds to join me in doing that research.
Do you think differently about your job since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic?
I’ve worked throughout my career on the origin or RNA, so COVID has been proof that RNA can have a very powerful effect on people and the world. So, 30 kilobases of RNA that the virus possesses has wreaked havoc on humanity. And I think partly because the LMB has handled it so well, it has not really adversely affected me or my research. It’s been a shame to see the damage it’s caused, but it’s also been amazing to see the response that science has produced to combat it.
Do you think people see or think of scientific research differently since the outbreak of COVID-19?
COVID-19 has allowed people to see that science can help them in times of emergency, and I think that people who are smart will think on that and will realise that actually science helps them in ordinary periods of time as well. So, I think it’s been an opportunity for science to show itself at its best. I think there are of course other aspects of science which are not so well received publicly. But I think in general the pandemic has been – I hate to say it – the pandemic has been good for science.
How does your research benefit society as a whole?
I think all of science contributes to human society, simply in the sense that it’s knowledge and humans are inquisitive creatures and so contributing to knowledge is important. But one of the things humans are most inquisitive about is where they came from: why they’re here and where they came from. And so, I think studying the origin of life contributes to that. I think the other aspect which is perhaps a little bit longer term, is the fact that medicine and health care is all about biology and when it goes wrong. And if you want to understand why it’s gone wrong or how it’s gone wrong, you need to understand it in detail. And if you want to understand anything in detail you need to know its history. And the history of life includes the origin of life. So, a proper understanding of biology, which will allow medicine to operate to its greatest effect, will require an understanding of the origin of life and the early evolution of life. So that’s a long-term benefit, but a benefit it is.
What key piece of advice would you give to someone embarking on a career in science/research?
Looking back now, at the science I’ve done and the career I’ve had, and thinking about advice I’d offer to younger people, I think two pieces of advice – one that I’ve mentioned already: play to your strengths – the other is: only do it if you enjoy it. If you’re not enjoying it, then you won’t have the energy to commit to it when it’s difficult. So, find something you enjoy, use your strengths to the best of your ability and have fun.
Where do you want you research to be in the next 5-10 years? What do you want to have achieved?
I think in general terms, we’d like to understand how to take building blocks, make them into bigger structures, and have those bigger structures then act synergistically to produce higher order behaviour. How that works and how that’s fuelled by chemical energy is a very interesting question which I would love to contribute to solving.
John was interviewed for the LMB Alumni Newsletter on 15th November 2021