Interview with Prof Dale Sanders

Categories: Meet the researchers

John Innes Centre John Innes Centre in Norwich, East of England, is an independent, international centre of excellence in plant science and microbiology. Their research makes use of a wide range of disciplines in biological and chemical sciences, including microbiology, cell biology, biochemistry, chemistry, genetics, molecular biology, computational and mathematical biology. More at www.jic.ac.uk/

Professor Dale Sanders is the director of the John Innes Centre (JIC). The JIC is an internationally leading institute for research in plant sciences and microbiology in the UK. His research focusses on how plant cells respond to changes in their environment and how they store the nutrients they acquire. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2001. Prof Sanders gained his PhD from Darwin College, Cambridge in 1978. In 2014, under his directorship, the John Innes Centre established new collaborations with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Professor Sanders, please tell us about your role and responsibilities.

I am a director of the John Innes Centre in Norwich, a research institute for plant and microbial sciences. We have about fifty research groups. We focus on basic research of plants and microbes, as well as on more applied research in crops and agriculture.

What is your own research area?

My own research area is how plants absorb nutrients from the soil, and what they do with them once they are inside the plant. One of the projects I am most excited about is related to zinc. About 25% of the world’s population doesn’t get enough of this essential human nutrient, because it is not accumulated in cereal grains very much. Through genetic modification, we work on enriching cereal grains with this essential mineral.

Is this your first visit in China?

My interactions with China started about five years ago when I was appointed to the editorial board of what has become a major journal in the field of plant biology. The board of this Chinese-run journal meets once a year. In addition, we have started a collaboration with two institutes of the Chinese Academy of Sciences which necessitated frequent visits. We have agreed joint research projects and established a joint centre of excellence.

The CAS-JIC Centre of Excellence for Plant and Microbial Sciences (CEPAMS) is the new project between JIC and your Chinese partners. What are the goals and plans of the centre?

There are two strands of our collaboration. The first strand is joint research projects between JIC and the two institutes we interact with, Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology in Beijing and Institute for Plant Physiology and Ecology in Shanghai. The second way is establishing the CEPAMS centre itself.
We are now in the process of appointing a director for this centre. Next, we will be hiring ten new faculty members who will be a part of CEPAMS. Members of staff will be permanently based in one of the two CAS institutes. We might set up a single institute down the line, but this was a quick way to get started and an effective way to do science.

What are the challenges researchers currently face in plant science?

A lot of the biggest, exciting challenges come from genomics. First challenge is related to what you can understand with genomics. Ultimately, in agriculture we would like to be able to do so-called “predictive breeding”, where you can predict what a plant will look like from its genome sequence.
The second challenge has come out of microbial field. It is now incredibly easy to get the genome sequence for microbes - you can have it within 24 hours. That enables us to identify the potential for genetic encoding of pathways which make novel products. You can use the genetic information to predict the types of those products.
Finally, the third opportunity lies in the field of synthetic biology. We are very active in putting together bits and pieces of DNA in an organism that will express them and use them, such as yeast or bacterium.

What motivates you as a researcher?

I have two motivations. Firstly, I get very excited by discovery, especially unexpected discovery. When we discover something new in the lab, it is amazing to know we are the first people in the world to find a new fact about how life works. Secondly, it is being able to make a difference. Through understanding of basic research, we can do something good for the world, as mentioned on the example of my work with zinc deficiency.

In your opinion, how important is international mobility for a researcher’s career?

It matters hugely. It is almost essential these days to experience different ways of doing things and different environments, and integrate them into one’s own way of doing science. There are different scientific cultures across the world, and there is not a single right way how to do science. Learning from different cultures means you can do science in a way that is right for you and your research, and that is very valuable.

What did you learn through your own interaction with China?

I learned a lot in terms of culture, and I gained new knowledge in different ways of doing science. For example, in the UK we rely much on postdoctoral researchers whereas the Chinese rely more on students. There are pros and cons of both systems, but I have come to the conclusion the British way is probably more effective, as we have more senior researchers in the lab.
At a more scientific level, we learned an incredible amount of science from our Chinese colleagues. It is a relationship between equals with both sides working in parallel on global issues of today. For example, the Chinese are making huge progress in understanding how the rice genome impacts the properties of the rice plant.

What sparked your interest in science?

I have always been interested in science. My interest in plant science goes back to a specific moment in my penultimate year at school. During a school field trip, I learned about the diversity of plant species and why some species grow in some areas and some in others. I wanted to learn about how this is related to the physiology of the plant. In my case, although I am not an ecologist, it was the experience of the natural world that turned me onto plants. Unfortunately, the plant field is not an area that many 18-year-olds get interested in. Within life sciences, they are more interested in biomedical topics.

Do you pass on your knowledge to the public and future generation of scientists?

To educate the future generation, I mainly pass on my knowledge through PhD students. I have had about 30 PhD students many of whom now have set up their own labs. This is how knowledge gets passed on through generations. I also interact a lot with the public, passing on my knowledge through public lectures and public dialogue. It is important to let the public tell you what is on their mind, listen to their questions. I also contribute to public understanding of science by writing an occasional article designed for a public audience, rather than a researcher-type audience.