March 4, 2020, by Lexi Earl
Measuring metabolites across the food chain: An interview with Dr Tristan Dew
Dr Tristan Dew is an Assistant Professor in Molecular Phenomics and a member of the Future Food Beacon. His work explores how mass spectrometry-based technologies can be used to rapidly assess metabolism within plants, animals and humans. In this interview, Tristan talks to Dr Lexi Earl about his research career, reasons for joining UoN, and his current projects.
Tell me about your work?
I lead the new Molecular Phenomics research group at Sutton Bonington. Molecular Phenomics investigates how the metabolism of living things relates to their genetics and their environment. We are currently building up a new Mass Spectrometry facility to offer both targeted and untargeted techniques to answer big questions across the food chain. On a day to day basis, this means I work with researchers in the plant, food, animal and nutritional sciences to develop novel techniques to accurately measure metabolites in a range of organisms.
Tell me a little about your research career?
My main expertise lies in profiling and exploring the metabolic fate of plant secondary metabolites – these are compounds that are not essential for growth, but help plants survive challenges from biological threats (e.g. fungal infection), and from environmental stressors (e.g. excessive UV exposure). Often these compounds imbue foods with colours and unique flavours, and when ingested may also influence their health. I did my BBSRC-CASE sponsored PhD in Food Biochemistry at the University of Leeds, where I was exploring whether tea (i.e. Camellia sinensis) has functional health properties for humans. This got me into the world of human intervention trials, the concept of healthy ageing, and made me think very carefully about the type and strength of evidence needed to make health claims for food. I continued as a lab manager and post doc as part of the Functional Foods research group at Leeds, where my research broadened out into other polyphenol rich foods (coffee, cocoa, berries and citrus fruits) and into a wider range of health areas ranging from clinical dermatology to cardiovascular disease. I developed several new analytical techniques to follow dietary components through the human body, sometimes in really novel tissue samples. I’ve since held lectureships in both biochemical pharmacology and food science, and before joining the beacon I was leading a successful MSc programme in Food Science and Innovation at Manchester Metropolitan University.
How did you become interested in science?
As a kid, science lessons and school plays grabbed most of my attention, so I think university lecturing was something of a foregone conclusion. My mum was also a great positive influence. She spent most of her career in analytical chemistry, and I think seeing her labs for the first time was what swung it. She took the time to explain what each shiny piece of analytical equipment did, and how they all worked together to build a complete picture. I knew I wanted my own lab one day!
Why Future Food? What would you like to accomplish while you’re here? How does being part of Future Food help you achieve your goals?
I thrive on solving new analytical problems, and the new mass spec facility is a powerful answer! Being part of the Beacon means the opportunity to collaborate with experts across the entire food chain, working on themes such as crop science, human nutrition, animal health, food quality, and the provenance and traceability of ingredients. A big pull was the Beacon investment in high resolution mass spec. The ability to pull in quantitative “all ion” data, potentially separating hundreds, if not thousands of chemical species in a single analytical run, is a real game changer. Nottingham has huge expertise in linking genetic traits with desirable phenotypes, such as drought tolerance, or pest resistance in crops. The expression of these genes will result in proteins, but those proteins enact their function through metabolism. Being able to survey the entire metabolome means we can get a real jump start on understanding the important mechanisms at play. This means I can contribute towards building a more sustainable global food supply.
What current projects are you working on?
I have so many exciting projects! Right now, I am working collaboratively on very sensitive methods to detect DNA/RNA modifications in a range of species, and to quantify plant hormones and their metabolites – this will help us to better understand how plants grow and adapt to various stressors. I’m also about to use a nontargeted metabolomics approach to map the changes undergone by Colombian cacao beans during fermentation. This entails using high resolution time of flight mass spectrometry to capture “all ion” data. We can then use multivariate statistics to pull out which compounds drive the important differences between the samples. Hopefully, we’ll be able to link this to sensory traits in the final product, so we can understand why single origin cacao develops a unique flavour. I also have my own PhD students who are using high res mass spec to explore potential biomarkers of diet, and how to make a frothier cup of coffee.
How do you explain your research to an ordinary person?
Science works best when researchers have accurate and precise tools to measure small differences between samples. Mass spectrometry is often described as a very fine set of scales, used to weigh the mass of individual molecules. I use this technology to measure the concentrations of primary and secondary metabolites in plants, foods and even in humans. This can inform us to the health of an organism or the utility of a material being tested. Eventually, this can help us to make foods that are easier to grow using less resources, and that are tastier, more nutritious and longer lasting.
Do you have a greatest career moment?
I’m not sure about greatest, but completing my first lab build, and getting my first new course approved were both very proud moments. Creating valuable resources that others will benefit from is a real pleasure for me. Nottingham has a great reputation for supporting the long term development of early career researchers, so I get to help others, and can in turn benefit from the experience of world leading experts.
Do you have any advice for young scientists?
Pick a discipline based on what you find truly magnetic and fascinating – this will keep you going through the hard bits. Also, try to understand that what seems straightforward to you might be quite complicated to others – and vice versa! This is why collaboration is so vital.