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Grantham supervisor awarded SEB President’s Medal

Grantham supervisor Dr Matt Johnson wins one of biology’s most prestigious prizes: the SEB President’s Medal.

Breakthrough in photosynthesis

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

The Society for Experimental Biology (SEB) award is for Matt’s research photosynthesis. Specifically, on the molecular machinery of photosynthesis. His work is a breakthrough in understanding how plants use solar energy.

Working with colleagues at the University of Sheffield, Matt located a crucial protein known as cytochrome b6f in the photosynthetic membrane of plants.

Affinity-mapping atomic force microscopy

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

Matt explained how this technique works. “This new method uses a specially functionalised probe to recognise only a specific type of protein. It does this by exploiting a natural protein-protein recognition event. One of the 2 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 2 proteins interact. Information that could be crucial for other important areas of bioscience, such as understanding how defective proteins can cause disease.”

Society of Experimental Biology’s President Medal

This innovative new technique has been praised by the Society of Experimental Biology.

Matt expressed his feelings on his win. “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 9 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 and impressive publication record. Further, they noted his multidisciplinary approach since studying as an undergraduate.

Photosynthesis research at the University of Sheffield

Matt’s PhD was supervised by Peter Horton, Associate Director of the Grantham Centre.

Peter explained how Matt’s work furthers our understanding of photosynthesis. “Finding out 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.”

Peter also expressed his delight on Matt’s SEB President’s Medal win. “I’m very proud to have guided Matt during his early years in my lab 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.”

Matt Johnson and the Grantham Centre

After several years at Queen Mary University, Matt returned to Sheffield as a Project Sunshine Fellow. Project Sunshine later became the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures. And this was where Matt laid the foundations for his recent work. He was mentored by fellow photosynthesis scientist Neil Hunter.

And they continue to collaborate, supervising Grantham Scholar Guy Mayneord. They also won a prize together recently.

Tony Ryan, our director, said Matt’s SEB President’s Medal win was inspiring. “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.”

More on photosynthesis at the Grantham Centre

Investigating the thylakoid membrane and photosynthesis by Guy Mayneord. Grantham Scholar Guy Mayneord – who is supervised by Matt – on the thylakoid membrane and photosynthesis.

Our Associate Director Colin Osborne has done a lot of groundbreaking research on photosynthesis. Colin supervises Grantham Scholar Suma Mani who wrote about the importance of one of his papers on the evolution of photosynthesis. Read: Interplay of photosynthesis and evolution: paper summary.

And Colin also researches the different types of photosynthesis. Read: NEW PAPER: Boosting plant growth via C4 photosynthesis.

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Edited by Claire Moran. Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich from Pexels.