From inflammation last week to evolution today, the Tuesday Feature is featuring some really interesting research. This week we talk to Professor James Mcinerney who specialises in micro-evolution. He recently joined the Faculty and can’t wait to get stuck in.
Explain your research the layman in ten sentences or less.
I’m an evolutionary biologist and my interest is in trying to understand the process that led to the patterns that we see today. The patterns we see like some bacteria are anti-bacterial resistant, that plants have chlorophyll that harvest light – these are the patterns we see. I’m trying to understand the evolutionary history of the organism or how they got to be the way they are today.
Very specifically I’m looking at things that merge. I’m interested in things that form hybrids; I’m interested in genes that jump from one species to another, which is really topical at the moment and something that I’ve worked on for the past ten years. I’m also interested in the origin of the eukaryotic cell – the cell of complex life. For me, how they got to be, how they arose on the planet is a very interesting question.
What is the importance of your research to the person reading this blog?
In evolutionary biology we’re interested in analysing the evolution of pathogens. These are disease causing bacteria and disease causing viruses. So when we see outbreaks, like the recent Ebola outbreak, we want to know where that outbreak started. The way in which we do that is by analysing the evolutionary history of the strains we isolate from the patient. These evolutionary biology methods have a direct benefit to humanity by allowing us to: trace and track epidemics and various outbreaks of disease, and to understand the spread of antibiotic resistance on the planet.
How did you first become interested in evolutionary histories?
My first studies were on deep evolutionary histories, that is to say trying to understand the first organisms on the planet, what they look like and so on. In order to do that, we had to develop methods and it seemed to us that this was the most interesting aspect at the time. We weren’t going to get access to the kinds of data we have right now. Today, if an outbreak of a disease occurs, we can get the full genomic sequence of the bacteria involved in that outbreak. We didn’t sort of have that kind of data 20 years ago, but we do now. The methods we developed 20 years ago we can now apply in a very real way to these problems today. The way I got into this was almost by accident – we were developing these methods for something entirely different and today those methods are useful for analysing epidemics.
Do you have any sciences heroes? Who inspired you?
I do indeed have a science hero. He’s a British scientist called Sir Paul Nurse. Paul Nurse got a Nobel Prize about 14 or 15 years ago and it’s not really his science that makes him a science hero to me. He struggled to get into university; he came from a very very modest background. He talks about this quite often. He finally got into university through sheer willpower and this meant that 20 years later he’s been awarded a Nobel Prize. I think that’s a really great thing and I think that Sir Paul Nurse is a superb individual.
How has working in Manchester helped you?
So I’ve just moved to Manchester; since June of this year. One of the main motivations of me moving to Manchester was that it has one of the great centres of Evolutionary Biology in the country and perhaps even in Europe and the world. Some tremendous people who are working here and some tremendous people who I want to work with. New methods are coming out, new technologies, science on the grand scale. This is one of the great universities of the world and so I moved here in order to be part of that and hopefully in the next ten years we can work hard on trying to uncover new evolutionary patterns, new evolutionary processes and Manchester is a great place to be for that.
What do you do outside of work?
Outside of work I find that what I really want to do is read a book and relax – to play some bad guitar. My work involves a lot of travel. For example this summer I was in the USA twice, I was in Europe and the Far East so when I’m on my time off I actually just want to sit around, read a book, relax, have a beer and just chill out.