June 23, 2020, by Lexi Earl

Producing future proteins sustainably: an interview with Prof Andy Salter

Andy Salter is a Professor in Nutritional Biochemistry and is leading the Future Proteins Platform, a £1 million Innovation Challenge project funded by the Future Food Beacon. Andy has worked extensively on the molecular mechanisms whereby diet impacts upon lipid metabolism and metabolic disease, particularly cardiovascular disease. In parallel, he has developed a research portfolio looking at the sustainable production of healthy foods to meet the demands of the expanding and ageing global population.

Tell me about your current research work?

Historically my interests have always been in metabolic disease. My PhD was in diabetes and heart disease. I then did a postdoc in Canada on obesity and lipid metabolism. I came to Nottingham as a postdoc at the Medical School, spending five years looking at the hormonal regulation of cholesterol metabolism and cardiovascular disease. When I came to Sutton Bonington, I moved to looking at the impact of diet on heart disease. However, when I joined the Division of Applied Biochemistry and Nutrition in 1989, there were strong interests in agriculture, so I was working alongside animal, as well as human, nutritionists. Inevitably, my interests expanded and I became particularly interested in foods of animal origin, and whether we could make them healthier. This included changing their nutritional composition, such as reducing the saturated fat content of meat and milk, and reducing the cholesterol content of eggs.

About 10 years ago, I started supervising a student who was vegetarian, who wanted to do a study on the impact of vegetarian meals on health and I persuaded her to extend it to flexitarian diets, looking at meat reduction rather than total avoidance, and that is how we started in this area. Marlow Foods (the makers of Quorn) became interested in our work and we won an Innovate UK grant with them to specifically look at meat reduction on cardiovascular risk. The findings of this study were recently published in the journal, Food & Function.

Through working with colleagues in Malaysia I became involved with the work of Crops for the Future (CFF). One focus was to look at the feed used in fish farming and, while there was no real expertise in fish nutrition within the University, I thought it sounded interesting. I was shocked by all of wild-caught fish that was being used to feed farmed fish, and so, working with CFF-funded PhD students, we started looking at alternative feeds for fish, including insects. We then got a British Council grant to specifically look at using black soldier larvae as an alternative feed for sea bass. All of a sudden, almost without thinking, everything was changing direction! But it was interesting and exciting!

The last piece of the jigsaw was when Monkfield Nutrition, one of the biggest insect producers in the UK, got in touch with the University looking for expertise in insect nutrition. While we were just starting to work in this area, we talked to them and successfully applied for an Innovate UK Knowledge Transfer Partnership and started working with them to improve the nutritional value of feed and thereby reducing costs of producing their insects. All of a sudden we realised this was becoming a ‘hot’ area. While for years, the impact of diet on health was the focus of most nutrition research, suddenly sustainability and the health of the planet were being recognised as key topics. I had some excellent colleagues around me who were starting to realise the same things as well. So that is what led us into this work.

When the Beacon started there was lots of excitement that the University had recognized Global Food Security as a key research area and then the Innovation Challenge provided the opportunity to get involved.  We started reaching out around the University and found there were pockets of interest in the sustainable production of protein, many of which we had not been aware of. Fortunately, we were successful and the Future Proteins Platform was born.

Then the final thing that happened to me, completely out the blue, was to be asked to be part of a Working Group funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and World Wildlife Fund. The group is international, and from very different perspectives, including some excellent environmental modellers based in Santa Barbara, USA. The group is focused on sustainable production of protein to feed our growing and aging population. There are also colleagues with expertise in global nutrition and animal agriculture, including fish. In the first meeting we just sat around and talked. It has been absolutely fascinating for me, using existing data to do research rather than working in the lab to generate it. It is just as valid and just as interesting in many ways and we have several papers submitted to journals for review. That really made me sit and think – I’ve only got a few years left in my career – so how do I want to spend them? I’ve moved away from research a lot in the last 15 years, as I became more and more involved in University and School Management. I want to leave that behind again and focus on research. This seemed to be something people were excited to get involved with and we now have Future Proteins; with two postdocs, six PhD students and colleagues from around the University (including in Malaysia) working with us. It is really going right across the spectrum, from protein production to food processing and nutritional impact for both people and livestock.

So how are we going to feed the world?

My view is that the debate at the moment is becoming too polarised. There is a solution in the middle somewhere. There is no doubt that, in many industrialized countries, we have to reduce our consumption of animal products. In the US, many people are eating 2-3 times as much protein as they actually need, largely from meat and milk, and in the UK we are not far behind.  However, there are still many people in the world, particularly in Africa, who would benefit from including more high-quality (such as animal) protein in their diet. So there has to be a reduction in consumption by some people and, perhaps, a re-distribution to others.  We need to look carefully at reducing the impact of animal agriculture on the environment, but removing all animal products from the global diet could have serious impacts on the most vulnerable in society. We also shouldn’t throw technology out of the window and say we need to go back to what we used to eat. We have fabulous science going on which can help. That is what I like about Future Proteins, we are looking at all of that. We are growing bacteria as potential feed for animals and fish, we are exploring how to reduce the ‘anti-nutritional’ factors, associated with many ‘underutilized’ protein-rich plant species and continuing to explore insects as both feed and food. We are particularly interested in using in vitro systems to measure the digestibility of protein from these novel sources and how it might be improved.  It has developed into a very exciting multi-disciplinary project.

What made you first interested in science and nutrition?

Science – I think, like lots of people, when I was a kid at school, I thought I wanted to be a doctor but quickly realised I was never going to get the grades and had to do something else, so I went to university to do Biological Sciences. I thought I would be a biomedical scientist. I ended up with a job afterwards at Guy’s Hospital in London as a Medical Laboratory Scientific Officer. I had no idea that I was working in the lab of one of the most eminent diabetiologists, at one of the most prestigious hospitals, in the world. Fortunately my boss, Prof Harry Keen, saw something in me and asked if I would like to do a PhD.  I was incredibly lucky to be funded to do a PhD while also getting paid a wage! That was looking at lipoprotein metabolism in diabetics, who are more susceptible to heart disease, and trying to work out why that was. I thought it was really interesting and it all sparked from then. It wasn’t until I then thought about what I might do next and I applied for a postdoc in Canada and was lucky enough to get it. I spent a couple of years working on obesity and lipoprotein metabolism in Canada, in Toronto. I then won a Fellowship from the British Heart Foundation to return to the UK and work at the University of Nottingham and I have been here ever since!

The nutrition side really was chance. I spent five years over in the Medical School and a job came up over here at Sutton Bonington, for a nutritional biochemist. There were a lot of animal nutritionists over here, a lot of the work being done related to agricultural production. However, increasingly, students were less interested in animal nutrition, they wanted to study human nutrition. So, the department has changed hugely since I began. In the 1990s, I worked with colleagues to set up our dietetics degree, having realised that a lot of our graduates were doing their first degree with us, going off to do dietetics at postgraduate level elsewhere and ultimately becoming dietitians working in the health service. We are now one of the biggest providers of human nutrition/dietetics education in the country. 

Tell me about working across disciplines?

My work has been interdisciplinary for many years, frequently, for example, collaborating with animal and food scientists. As my interests have expanded over the last five years, into the area of food sustainability, it has been a real eye-opener to become more and more involved with, not only many aspects of agricultural and biological sciences, but also economics, the humanities and mathematical modelling.  Part of that has been completely personal, my youngest daughter read Sociology at university, and inevitably I was asked to proofread lots of her essays. I’d been very dismissive, like lots of scientists are, about Sociology before then, but started seeing the importance of the impact of science on society and involving the public in deciding what we do and how we use our discoveries to the maximum benefit of all. I think the Beacon represents a great opportunity for researchers from all of these disciplines to interact. Inevitably, there were many suspicions at the beginning about the Beacon, that it would only benefit those who were involved in its creation. However, I have to credit David [Salt] and the Management Team for reaching out and bringing lots of disciplines together. I think the solution of problems like, ‘how are we going to feed the planet?’, have to be multidisciplinary. We can come up with all sorts of ideas, but if society is not willing to accept them, then it’s a waste of time. The development and use of genetic manipulation within the food chain is a classic example. Twenty or thirty years ago, we just thought well here it is! Everyone is going to be cheering and clapping and then, all of a sudden, there was a massive backlash against the technology. I think it is important that we learn from these experiences and ensure close links between science and society.

I believe that engaging with the public is an important part of our job.

What kind of impact does your research have on ordinary people?

The public inevitably have an interest in nutrition and have some very strong opinions about it. One of the things I have done more and more of in the last few years, is getting involved in outreach activities. A lot of my early work involved using animal models, and you tended to keep it very secret because you were frightened. This was a period when animal liberationists were at their most active, you came out of the house every morning and checked under your car, it was that bad. As I’ve gotten bolder, I’ve tried to explain the strict regulation of such work and the lengths we are required to go to minimize suffering and to ensure our studies are well designed and necessary. One of the first outreach things I did was ‘Pint of Science’. Turning up to a pub to give a talk, with no idea who might be in the audience, was nerve-wracking but it actually turned out to be very enjoyable. I’ve also talked at the University of the Third Age, and faced one of the most engaged and questioning audience of my career! I believe that engaging with the public is an important part of our job. People should, quite rightly, have complete freedom to decide what their diet is going to be, vegan, vegetarian, or omnivorous. We have a duty to try and make sure the public has the right information available, whether it is about their own health, or that of the planet, even if they don’t immediately act upon it.  In nutrition, in particular, there are plenty of other people who will give the public advice based on little evidence and, often, purely for their own gain. Over the last decade, I’ve become more and more involved in the Nutrition Society which, not only represents a forum for all of us who are committed to evidence-based nutrition, but also is actively involved with public engagement and education. Last year I became a Trustee of the newly formed Academy of Nutritional Sciences which was launched by the British Dietetic Association, Nutrition Society, British Nutrition Foundation and the Association for Nutrition. We hope this will become an influential voice (to both government and the public) in ensuring that evidence-based nutrition is at the heart of decisions (at both the individual and societal level).

So there are clear research impacts on people’s lives but it is the challenge of translating that so people can understand it. And believe it.

And food isn’t just about health, it is not just about keeping us alive. In all societies, food is about pleasure, culture, religion and all sorts of things. In the West many of us have a high meat diet, but as other countries become richer, their meat consumption also tends to increase because meat is a status food, and, in moderation, it can prevent malnutrition.

Do you have a greatest career moment?

Gosh. In one experiment, when I first came to Nottingham, we were looking at how hormones might regulate lipoprotein metabolism. Basically, we had an experiment where we added insulin to some cells. I was measuring the binding of LDL to its receptor. I remember standing by the radioactive counter watching the data come up and seeing that insulin directly increased LDL binding. A little later, my first in my very first attempt at ‘molecular biology’, we showed insulin regulates the expression of the LDL receptor gene. That was really exciting!

I have to say the biggest thing was getting the job here. I have to thank my old boss, Peter Buttery, for seeing something in me. I had a lot of freedom in my early days to do what I wanted to do.

Do you have any advice for younger scientists?

The first thing I always say to people who want to do a PhD is why? I always ask, do you think you are going to enjoy this because there is no guarantee when you’re doing a PhD that it will enhance your prospects, and it can be three years of misery if you don’t enjoy doing it. It can also be three years of joy. I enjoyed picking up a pipette, transferring one solution into another. If someone said for the rest of your career, you can go back in the lab, I would probably say great! So you have to enjoy it. The other thing is that while you have to have some direction, there are very few people who can predict where you will ultimately end up. As a biologist, you don’t really know where it is going to go and if something sounds interesting, and it offers you an opportunity, don’t be afraid to take it. I’ve got two ex-PhDs, who both have Faculty positions at the University of California in Los Angeles, purely by approaching someone at a conference and talking to him. That is one of my proudest achievements actually. I’m at the stage now where I have no particular ambition for myself, but to see other people I’ve helped make it, is so rewarding. We all have a responsibility to leave a legacy behind that our younger colleagues can continue with.

I’m at the stage now where I have no particular ambition for myself, but to see other people I’ve helped make it, is so rewarding. We all have a responsibility to leave a legacy behind that our younger colleagues can continue with.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

The only other thing I would say, relates to taking chances. I don’t think any of us really knew what the Beacon was going to do, and I don’t know what it is going to do in the future. It has been disruptive to a certain extent but in a good way – bringing people together from different disciplines, not talking about university politics or teaching, but talking about research again. That has certainly enthused me again, and I thought I was starting to wane a little. It has been a real breath of fresh air. Sometimes you do need to stir things up a bit and that is what has happened.

Posted in Meet the Beacon