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Research and career focus: Professor Matthew Terry – plant biochemistry

Current Research I - Professor Matthew Terry
My name’s Matthew Terry and I’m a professor of molecular plant biology at the University of Southampton. Well, we’re really interested in the biogenesis of chloroplasts - chloroplast is where photosynthesis happens in plants and we’re interested in how light regulates the synthesis of the chloroplast but also particularly on how chloroplasts signal back to the nucleus to regulate nuclear gene expression of important chloroplast proteins. So, chloroplasts are really where all the energy is generated in plants - it’s all the energy that’s coming to the planet really, is harvested in plant chloroplasts. And they’re very important for a lot of the really big questions that we have on the planet at the moment - questions of food security, questions of bioenergy.
And they’re also very important in aspects of biotechnology such as, synthetic biology. Chloroplasts really, are little factories for producing all sorts of molecules, and so they have a very important role throughout biology. One of the main areas that we work on is the tetrapyrrole pathway in plants, and this is a fascinating biosynthetic pathway that makes a range of really important molecules, for example, chlorophylls that harvest all the energy for photosynthesis in plants. They are tetrapyrroles; heme is a tetrapyrrole - it’s very important implants. We think actually it might even be a signalling molecule in plants. Of course, it’s very important in humans as well because it’s carrying the oxygen around in the blood.
There are other ones as well - the chromophore phytochrome - phytochrome bilane is also a tetrapyrrole, in this case, a linear tetrapyrrole. So this is a central pathway that we’re really interested in in terms of its regulation and in terms of possible signaling roles that it might have. Well, my first degree was in biochemistry at the University of Southampton.
I think it gives you a really sound understanding of all the things that you need to know to work in the molecular biology area and then I went on to do a PhD, working in plant area, working on the regulation of photo morphogenesis by the plant photoreceptor phytochrome, and from there I went to the University of California in Davis, where I did biochemistry studying the chromophore biosynthesis pathway of phytochrome. From California it took me to Japan - so it’s taken me all over the world, doing biochemistry. We use a broad range of techniques now to tackle the questions that we’re trying to answer.
Arabidopsis is a model plant that we’re using and we do a lot of molecular genetic experiments as well as genomic experiments, but we still do biochemistry. And of course biochemistry is fundamental if you’d like, to our understanding of these pathways, and having a training in biochemistry I think, really gives you sort of, a lot of confidence when you have to eventually get down to tackling the really you know - what’s really happening. And so I’ve always felt that it’s really underpinned everything I do even as I go into new areas in cell biology and molecular genetics.
It’s not something that we work on there’s a lot of interest, for example, in using chloroplasts as expression systems for biomedical purposes, for vaccines and antibodies. You have less transfer of foreign DNA by the chloroplast because they’re maternally inherited and so there could be biotechnology applications for that, for example.

In the next in our career-focused films we meet Matthew Terry, Professor of Molecular Plant Biology at the University of Southampton. Here he describes his background and research and explains why an improved understanding of plant biochemistry offers important opportunities for society.

Prof Terry works within the Centre for Biological Sciences at the University of Southampton and more details about his current research studies can be found on his web site.

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Biochemistry: the Molecules of Life

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