An interview with Dr Hadrien Peyret

January 2020

Dr Hadrien Peyret is a postdoctoral researcher at the John Innes Centre, and a member of the Microbiology Society. In this interview, he talks about developing plant-based pharmaceuticals and why he thinks vaccines are such an important output of microbiology research.

Hadrien Peyret
© Hadrien Peyret

Tell us about your research

I am currently a postdoctoral researcher currently working on an EU Horizon 2020 project which aims to modify the plant Nicotiana benthamiana, to make it more suitable for the production of proteins and drugs of interest. My role specifically, is to analyse new lines and varieties of the plant to see if they are any better than the wild-type at producing virus-like particles (VLPs).

You have worked on developing plant-based pharmaceuticals and vaccines in the lab of Professor George Lomonossoff. Can you tell us more about this?

In recent years, research in our lab focuses on the production of virus-like particles (VLPs) in plants. VLPs look like viruses but don’t contain the replicating viral genome, and are therefore completely harmless. In essence, they are self-forming protein-based nanoparticles that can be used for all sorts of applications, from nanowires to drug delivery mechanisms to vaccines. We use plants as little green factories, to produce these VLPs thanks to agrobacterium-mediated transient gene expression, in which we modify the soil bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens, to deliver the genes we are interested in – such as those that code for VLP proteins – to the cells inside plant leaves. The plant then produces the VLPs for us. It’s a very nice field to work in, and a somewhat niche area of biotechnology, but it’s rewarding to see it grow and develop.

What qualifications did you obtain before starting this role?

I got my BSc from the University of Birmingham, then went to the John Innes Centre in Norwich for my PhD, which I finished in 2014. I have been a postdoc ever since.

What are the professional challenges that present themselves and how do you try to overcome them?

The main professional challenge at the moment is that career progression from the postdoc stage is extremely difficult in academia in the UK. The standard route is to get a Fellowship, followed by a tenure track position, but the odds of success are extremely low and there are very few long term academic positions for every 100 postdocs who would like one. Huge numbers of scientists are effectively forced out of academia at this stage in their career. I have not yet managed to overcome this challenge.

What is a typical working day for you?

After going through some emails and curating the Twitter account for the International Society for Plant Molecular Farming (which I manage), I set up my day’s experiments; which usually involve either molecular cloning (preparing a new gene construct which I want to express in plants); agroinfiltration of plants; biochemistry (protein extraction and purification); microscopy or analysis of proteins or RNA that I’ve packaged inside VLPs. Once my findings are clear in the form of a publishable experimental result, I try to find the time to write manuscripts for publication, and the whole peer reviewed process can be quite time consuming. A few times a year I will give lectures on plant virology and plant biotechnology to students at the University of East Anglia. Two or three times a year I will go to an academic conference (such as the Microbiology Society’s Annual Conference) to present my recent work to the wider scientific community.

Tell us about your biggest professional achievement(s) so far.     

My most important professional achievements are my peer-reviewed publications. As a postdoctoral scientist hoping to pursue a career in academia, these are by far the most important metrics by which I am judged.

You are an active member of the Microbiology Society, tell us more about your involvement

I am not that active as a member: I have been to Annual Conference a few times and presented my work once as a poster presentation, and once as an oral presentation.

Why is it important to be a member of an organisation like the Microbiology Society?

Typically, membership means that registration fees for conferences are cheaper! This is the main advantage of Society membership these days.

Where did your interest in microbiology come from?

As an undergraduate I always enjoyed all aspects of microbiology. Not only is microbiology interesting from a fundamental biological point of view, but also it is hugely important for biotechnology as well as medicine. I have worked on novel vaccine design, and one of the motivators aside from pure intellectual interest, is the obvious relevance and impact to health and well-being around the world.

Why does vaccine production matter to microbiology?

The more salient question would be why does microbiology matter to vaccine production! Vaccines are arguably the greatest output of microbiology research ever. Vaccines have had unimaginable benefits to human and animal health over the past century, and all of those benefits are underpinned by research in microbiology. Microbiology has far more to offer us than just vaccines, but even if it didn’t, it would all be worth it just for that.

If you are a member of the Society and would like to find out more about how you can get involved with Society activities and/or showcase your research, please email us at [email protected].