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Research and career focus: Dr Melissa Salmon – future developments in natural products

Key role of biochemistry in scientific developments.
I’m Dr. Melissa Salmon. I’m a senior research associate here in biological sciences at UEA. We’re working on enzymes that are added to animal feeds, and what we’re doing in the lab is we’re trying to improve these enzymes by improving their thermostability or their catalytic properties so that they’ll be more efficient. I started by doing biochemistry here at UEA, then I went on and did a PhD in biochemistry. After that I moved over to the John Innes centre where I work for five years as a research scientist before coming back to UEA to start my postdoc. And I’ve always been interested in working on enzymes and understanding how they work which is a fundamental part of biochemistry.
Biochemistry gives you a really wide range of skills and you can use these in many other different areas of biology, like molecular biology, microbiology, and some new emerging areas such as synthetic biology. And give this gives you a really good grounding to make an impact here. Natural products are produced mainly in plants, so plants have evolved and the ability to produce these compounds over millions of years, and this is to act as either attractants for pollinators so that they can reproduce or, to act as defence compounds - this is to - protect them against invading pathogens and diseases. And it’s mainly this property has been exploited by and the medicinal world in order to provide and medicines for humans.
Biochemistry uses such a wide range of techniques be this from genetics - understanding things at the DNA level to proteins - understanding how proteins are made and being able to purify them and then also being able to assay them - to test their activity, so that we can find novel activities. So it’s really a multidisciplinary approach that biochemists can provide to studying natural products in general. We use molecular biology techniques that’s looking at the sequence level to understand the specific amino acids that are involved in making these products. It’s at the biochemistry stage - that’s producing these enzymes, purifying them and then conducting assays in order to test their activity and to look at the products that they’re making.
So I think as well as biochemistry synthetic biology is going to play a large role and this is in terms of understanding how the plants have evolved to make these natural products and the enzymes are involved, and if we can really understand this be able to manipulate them to make new products that aren’t found in nature, because plants can only make so many natural products. And if we can find new compounds that are not found in nature we might be able to treat some diseases that antibiotics aren’t able to treat currently.

In our next film to focus on research careers, Dr Melissa Salmon discusses how biochemistry will play a key role in scientific developments in useful natural products (e.g. pharmaceuticals, foodstuffs) and synthetic biology over the next 20-50 years.

Dr Salmon works as a Postdoctoral Senior Researcher in the Earlham Institute on the Norwich Research Park. More details about current research undertaken in this institute can be found on this web site.

Did this account of Dr Melissa Salmon’s career so far give you any ideas for your own future? Add your thoughts to the comments.

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Biochemistry: the Molecules of Life

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