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Bronze tomatoes and SalmoNet: Meet the NIB 2015 Conference Poster Winners

In this feature we catch up with the winners of the NIB conference prizes this year, courtesy of the Royal Society of Biology. Dr Eugenio Butelli (John Innes Centre) and Dr Aline Metris (Institute of Food Research) tell us a bit about their exciting projects and future plans.

Dr Butelli is a plant molecular biologist that is using genetic modification techniques to explore the links between food and human health. He has been working on GM tomatoes for 12 years within the framework of three EU-funded projects and has recently identified the genes that regulate citrus colour and acidity. Butelli’s research is helping to improve the nutritional value of foods and crop production.

His award winning poster showed how “bronze” tomatoes, which produce very high levels of two natural phenolic compounds: anthocyanins and resveratrol, dramatically reduce the symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease in a mouse model.

Dr Eugenio Butelli receives his poster prize from David Hume, Chair NIB, and Laura Bellingan, Director of Science Policy, Society of Biology

Dr Eugenio Butelli receives his poster prize from David Hume, Chair NIB, and Laura Bellingan, Director of Science Policy, Society of Biology

Dr Metris is a computational microbiologist working on bacteria responsible for foodborne illnesses, such as Salmonella and Campylobacter. Her research is identifying the genes responsible for the bacteria’s survival and growth, which will enable the design of new treatment options and improve food safety.

Metris’ poster described SalmoNet, a resource for scientists studying Salmonella that captures a genome wide network of interactions between proteins in these bacteria. This large, multidisciplinary project was initiated in József Baranyi’s group at IFR, and has been carried out in collaboration with Dr Rob Kingsley at IFR and Dr Tamás Korcsmáros, a joint Fellow at IFR and TGAC.

Dr Aline Metris and colleagues at the Institute of Food Research and The Genome Analysis Centre next to their award-winning poster at the NIB 2015 conference

Dr Aline Metris and colleagues at the Institute of Food Research and The Genome Analysis Centre next to their award-winning poster at the NIB 2015 conference

We asked them both a few questions:

How did you become interested in this field of work?

EB: “I have been working on metabolic engineering in tomatoes with Professor Cathie Martin since 2002. I was interested in understanding and modifying a complex metabolic pathway and demonstrating that we can increase the nutritional value of plant foods”

AM: “I started studying chemical engineering, but was always interested in biology so I did a PhD in biotechnology, and then came to IFR to study bacterial modelling with József Baranyi. I like the combination of mathematics and biology; biology is not linear so to understand it there is a lot to gain taking mathematical and network approaches.”

What did you think of the NIB 2015 conference?

EB: “It was a great experience to be in Rothamsted for the first time and I had the opportunity to meet new people and catch up with a couple of familiar faces. The talks and the posters were fascinating but some of them were too complex for such a multidisciplinary conference. I think scientists (at every level) should make an effort to present their research in a more accessible and informal way. This should be the spirit of a NIB conference. “

AM: “At the conference, it was good to see that so many people were moving away from the “one gene has one outcome” way of thinking, and that people were considering the importance of how genes are organised, and tackling problems from this point of view.

I was also able to engage with other scientists encountering similar problems in different areas. For example, it was useful to meet with Mark Stevens from The Roslin Institute, who is studying Salmonella in cattle. He’s shown how very small mutations have very large effects on infection of cattle. We are now interested to see how data his group have generated could be integrated into our model”

What are your future research plans?

EB: “It’s important to keep a genuine scientific curiosity. I am very lucky to be involved in different projects and there are always exciting developments. Only today, I have new data indicating that our tomatoes enriched in anthocyanins and resveratrol are beneficial for cardiovascular disease. Now I feel motivated to improve the “bronze” tomato I presented in the NIB 2015 poster.

I am not working exclusively on tomato and, at the moment, my main interest is in citrus biology and in the genetic control of colour and fruit acidity. I am really passionate about citrus and, hopefully, the prize I received for the NIB2015 poster competition will be used to help finance a botanical expedition in North-East India, the centre of origin of wild citrus species.”

AM: “Future plans not only include integrating new data, but to continue to refine and expand the SalmoNet model and to make it user friendly for the wider scientific community. This will involve continuing to build the fruitful collaboration between the groups at IFR and TGAC”

Thank you Eugenio and Aline.  All the best for your future projects!