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Meet the scientist looking for new antibiotics in nature

PUBLISHED: 10:15 29 July 2019 | UPDATED: 09:20 05 September 2019

Dr Edward Hem's work has involved studying bacteria in leafcutter ant nests, which has shown similarities to commercially-available antibiotics  Picture: Ivan Kuzmin/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Dr Edward Hem's work has involved studying bacteria in leafcutter ant nests, which has shown similarities to commercially-available antibiotics Picture: Ivan Kuzmin/Getty Images/iStockphoto

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Each month we meet the scientists, change makers, educators and technicians working at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park to hear how their work is shaping the world we live in. Explore the series here.

Norfolk-born and raised, organic chemist Dr Edward Hems studied at UEA and has carved a career for himself at a world-leading science institute within Norwich Research Park  Picture: contributedNorfolk-born and raised, organic chemist Dr Edward Hems studied at UEA and has carved a career for himself at a world-leading science institute within Norwich Research Park Picture: contributed

Raised in Norfolk, Dr Edward Hems' research has already saved fish from poisonous algae outbreaks in the Broads - now he's studying chemicals in nature that could be used as new antibiotics for drug-resistant infections. In honour of Norfolk Day, Stevie Smith spoke to the local scientist working at the cutting-edge Norwich Research Park.

What made you want to become a scientist?

During my A-levels at East Norfolk Sixth Form College, I spent a month in the lab at the John Innes Centre through the Nuffield Research Placement.

Edward Hems, Dr Martin Rejzek and Dr Ben Wagstaff check for toxic algae in the Broads in 2014    Picture: James BassEdward Hems, Dr Martin Rejzek and Dr Ben Wagstaff check for toxic algae in the Broads in 2014 Picture: James Bass

It was completely different to the labs at school, where all the experiments are designed and teachers know what the outcomes are going to be.

At that time I wanted to do Computer Science at university, but those four weeks made me reconsider things. I'm a Norfolk boy, and I wanted to stay here, so after studying Chemistry at the University of Sheffield, I returned to the John Innes Centre to work on my PhD.

What does your job involve on a day-to-day basis?

I'm an organic chemist working in molecular microbiology, and I work across lots of different projects at once. One project I'm working on relates to antibiotic resistance; we've been looking at chemicals produced in nature to see if they could be used as new antibiotics. It's my job to chemically synthesize those antibiotics to figure out which parts could be responsible for having an antibacterial effect.

So, the effects of this work could be life-changing?

We're doing a lot of the early discovery work, but yes, if we can discover something that leads to new antibiotics coming to market, that would be really exciting!

What else have you been working on at the John Innes Centre?

Working with park partner the University of East Anglia, we've been looking at the bacteria and fungi that live in the nests of leafcutter ants. Leafcutter ants don't actually eat leaves - they use them as a food source for growing fungus - so they're like farmers.

We're interested in a parasitic fungus called Escovopsis that's basically trying to get a free meal by living off the fungus farmed by the ants. One of my colleagues looked at the molecules from this fungus and discovered they were very similar to some already very well-known commercially-available antibiotics.

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That really interested us because these molecules hadn't been reported in the literature. We had to figure out if the fungus was producing these molecules to give itself an advantage - perhaps they were designed to kill bacteria that might be dangerous for it, for example.

It was my job to make similar molecules with subtle variations, swapping things around to make mix-and-match molecules to try to understand which parts of the molecule were responsible for any antimicrobial effects. It's all still ongoing.

Norfolk Day is all about celebrating what makes our county special - how does the work you do have a local impact?

In the Norfolk broads, there was a problem with algae outbreaks because the algae was producing toxins that are incredibly poisonous to fish. So, two of us worked on this collaborative project with the Environmental Agency, Broads Authority and the Pike Angling Club.

I worked on the chemistry side, synthesizing small parts of the toxin so we could develop ways of detecting it, and my colleague Dr. Ben Wagstaff discovered a virus that infects the algae, splits it open and therefore releases toxins into the water. Our research showed that hydrogen peroxide is a really good, sensible and safe way of destroying the toxin.

READ MORE: The woman uplifting the next generation of scientists

What's it like working at the Norwich Research Park?

It's excellent for science, and you've got people with all sorts of specialist backgrounds working together. At the John Innes Centre, where I work, there's a huge amount of collaboration and the project leaders are great at connecting people to projects that play to their strengths.

It's a world-leading science institute that's allowed me to carve my own niche as an organic chemist. I'm not one of those people who hates Mondays, I really enjoy my job; I get to come to work and do chemistry!

How do you like to spend your time when you're not in the lab?

My main hobby is clay pigeon shooting - I'm a member of a local club and we meet up once a fortnight, it's a really nice social thing as well.

I also do a lot of fishing, which isn't something I'd done before but I spent so much time around anglers as part of the Broads algae project and they kept saying "you should come fishing some time." I caught a few pike and thought "Actually, this is really good fun!"

READ MORE: Meet the Norfolk man on a science mission

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