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Personal profile

Summary

I am a Professor of Structural Biology and the Director of the Centre for Enzyme Innovation (CEI) at the University of Portsmouth. Our team has strong background in the discovery and engineering of enzymes, including those for the depolymerisation of lignocellulose plant biomass, and more recently, towards bio-based recycling and upcycling solutions for man-made plastic polymers.

My technical expertise is in protein biophysics with a focus on structural biology. Our team employs a range of hydrodynamic and spectroscopic methods in parallel with X-ray crystallography to reveal the detailed mechanisms of enzyme function. I am keen to embrace the development of synchrotron X-ray techniques, together with the latest AI technologies, and work closely with colleagues at the Diamond Light Source and the AlphaFold team at DeepMind.

We are interested in understanding enzyme function at the atomic level and work with a host of superb international collaborators from academic laboratories, institutes and industry partners. Locally, I work closely with Prof. Andy Pickford, our CEI Operations Director, and Prof. Simon Cragg, who leads our enzyme discovery operations in SE Asia. I am part of the leadership team of the BOTTLE consortium, led by my close colleague Dr Gregg Beckham at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado. Recent productive collaborations include working with the groups led by Prof. Jen Dubois (Montana State University), Prof. Henry Woodcock (University of South Florida), and Prof. Lindsey Eltis (University of British Columbia).

Highlights from our team include the characterisation and engineering of an enzyme, PETase, that can digest polyethylene terephthalate, a common plastic found in single-use plastic bottles and clothing (Austin et al. 2018, PNAS). The associated paper, and the follow-up paper on the enzyme MHETase (Knott, 2020), both reached the Altmetric top 100. Recent funding has allowed us to expand into the development of thermotolerant enzymes and the detailed chemistry of plastic deconstruction, with new laboratories opened in 2022 featuring biorecycling, chemical analysis and polymer synthesis. We have also commissioned an industrial engagement hub to allow closer industrial interaction through our dedicated Innovation Fellow, Rory Miles, already winning multiple research project and sustainability awards.

I am an advocate of research dissemination across all levels, and have given over 50 invited talks since 2018 to audiences from school children, to public events, scientific conferences and government panels, while also engaging with the media. Recent interviews can be found at BBC Earth and at COP26 UKRI Climate Pioneers.

Research Interests

  • Structural characterisation of enzymes for plastic depolymerisation
  • Engineering enzymes for industrial biotechnology applications
  • Structure-led design of lignocellulose degrading enzymes
  • Biochemical and biophysical analysis of enzyme-polymer interactions

Biography

I graduated from the University of Glasgow in 1993, with a BSc (Hons) degree in Microbiology, before going on to complete a PhD in Virology at the MRC Virology Unit, Glasgow. My research career continued in the Structural Biology Laboratories at the University of York, before I joined the late Professor Geoff Kneales’ group at the University of Portsmouth in 2000, where I worked on DNA-binding proteins. In 2005, I completed a Postdoctoral Fellowship with the EMBL-Grenoble, France, where I researched macromolecular crystallography and spectroscopy in Dr Raimond Ravelli's group. In 2007, I re-joined the University of Portsmouth - initially as a Research Council UK (RCUK) Fellow - and commissioned an X-ray crystallography facility. I was appointed to Reader in 2012, Professor in 2016, and Director of the CEI in 2019.

Media Availability

I am happy to take calls and emails from media on the research from my group. Initial requests should be directed to my PA, Jacky Dillon, - jacky.dillon@port.ac.uk

Interested journalists can also contact the University's Media and Communications team for support and advice on all media engagement, including out of hours.

Expertise related to UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This person’s work contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-being
  • SDG 7 - Affordable and Clean Energy
  • SDG 8 - Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • SDG 9 - Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure
  • SDG 12 - Responsible Consumption and Production
  • SDG 14 - Life Below Water

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