Photosynthesis researcher awarded one of biology’s top prizes

Dr Matt Johnson, winner of the Society of Experimental Biology President’s Medal for plant science.

A University of Sheffield plant scientist, Dr Matt Johnson, has been named today (15 January) as a winner of one of biology’s most prestigious prizes – the Society of Experimental Biology’s President’s Medals.

The award recognises Dr Johnson’s research on the molecular machinery of photosynthesis. His work represents a major breakthrough in understanding how plants use solar energy to power their growth, and provide the Earth’s food and oxygen.

Working with colleagues at the University of Sheffield, where he is a Lecturer in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, Dr Johnson located a crucial protein known as cytochrome b6f in the photosynthetic membrane of plants.

The discovery was made using a new technique, known as affinity-mapping atomic force microscopy, which can map the nanoscale landscape of proteins that sit in complex biological membranes.

Dr Johnson said: “This new method uses a specially functionalised probe to recognise only a specific type of protein, by exploiting a natural protein-protein recognition event. One of the two proteins is attached to the probe, which ‘feels’ its way along the membrane surface and detects when the other protein is nearby.

“This widely applicable new method provides both a tool to identify the position of specific proteins within a biological membrane and a new means to understand how the two proteins interact – information that could be crucial for other important areas of bioscience such as understanding how defective proteins can cause disease.”

This innovative new technique for studying plants has been praised by the Society of Experimental Biology, who award President’s Medals to young scientists in four categories each year. Dr Johnson will be presented with the Plant Section medal at the Society’s annual meeting in Brighton in July.

He said: “I am deeply honoured and delighted to be awarded the prestigious SEB President’s Medal for Plant Science. The award provides wonderful recognition of my work on photosynthesis in the last nine years since my PhD. It means a great deal to be ranked alongside the many great scientists who have previously held the award.”

Judges also noted Dr Johnson’s physiological and biochemical analysis work, advanced optical spectroscopy studies, impressive publication record and the multidisciplinary approach he has developed since studying as an undergraduate in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology.

Dr Johnson’s PhD was supervised by Professor Peter Horton FRS, Associate Director of the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, who said: “I feel very proud to have guided Matt during his early years in my lab, to have watched his subsequent development, and to now see him given such an accolade. This University has an internationally recognised reputation for photosynthesis research, spanning almost 40 years, so it is fantastic to see one of our young scientists continuing this tradition, making discoveries of such fundamental importance.

“Finding out the details of how the different types of molecules involved in converting the sun’s energy into chemical energy are arranged within the complex membranes of plant cells is a major goal of photosynthesis research, but one that has remained elusive. Using new techniques developed here in Sheffield, Matt has made a major breakthrough in achieving this goal.”

After several years as a postdoctoral researcher at Queen Mary University of London, Dr Johnson returned to Sheffield as a Project Sunshine Fellow. The interdisciplinary sustainability research programme he joined formed the basis of the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, and was where Dr Johnson laid the foundations for his recent work under the mentorship of fellow photosynthesis scientist Professor Neil Hunter FRS.

Dr Johnson and Professor Hunter continue to collaborate, and are currently supervising a PhD project in the Grantham Centre’s postgraduate training programme.

Professor Tony Ryan OBE, Director of the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, said: “Matt’s work goes to the heart of the Grantham Centre mission. By better understanding how plants capture the sun’s energy and turn it into food, we can discover new ways of meeting humanity’s growing demands for food and energy.“

Not only that, but Matt’s journey from being a Sheffield student to the winner of this prestigious award for young scientists is emblematic of what we hope to achieve with our Grantham Scholars’ training programme. At the University of Sheffield, we are nurturing the world-class sustainability researchers of tomorrow.”