An interview with Professor Brian Wood

June 2020

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Brian Wood is Emeritus Professor at the University of Strathclyde, UK. He is a long-standing member of the Microbiology Society, and in this interview he tells us more about his research career. 

Tell us more about your research.

No-one really knows how things and events will shape our lives. My Ph.D. work was on organisms that spoil beer and how they metabolise sugars; to be more exact, why they grow better on maltose than on glucose.  I chased several wild hares until I came across a paper on Neisseria meningitidis that mentioned that this pathogen utilises maltose by phosphorolysis, the formation of one glucose-1-phosphate and one glucose from a maltose molecule, thus saving the requirement to use an ATP molecule to extract half of the chemical energy from the maltose; a small saving, it would seem, but actually quite significant for an anaerobe.  Why this pathogen should have developed this metabolic pathway when, as its name suggests, it is found in a situation where it is highly unlikely to come across free maltose is a mystery that I have never resolved. But it solved my problem and secured my supervisor our first appearance in the Biochemical Journal.  

This chance discovery has never impacted the brewing industry, where, to Dr Cyril Rainbow's constant irritation, brewery microbiologists would announce that they found that media containing only glucose gave lower bacterial counts than did media with maltose.  On the other hand, this paper is still cited by workers studying sour dough bread fermentations, where the biochemistry is central to understanding why the synergy between the lactic acid bacteria and yeasts is so stable.

Your research has led to you travelling to numerous locations, can you tell us more about this? 

For my postdoctoral training I went to study tyrosinase kinetics at The University of California, Davis. My supervisor, Professor Lloyd L. Ingraham, was friendly with Professor Charles R. Goldman and, loving the Californian Sierra Nevada, enjoyed joining Charles on field trips to study Tahoe and other lakes in the Sierra. Finding that I had an interest in water biology, deriving from field trips as a sixth form pupil with my biology master, Mr George B. Hindle, he asked me along to these trips, where my biochemical knowledge attracted Prof. Goldman so much that he invited me to work with him on the pools of Cape Evans, Ross Island, Antarctica. Also, my training for this austral summer involved many wonderful rips to the iconic Lake Tahoe and numerous other high-altitude lakes including Castle, Clear and Mono.

Why did you later work on food fermentations? 

Dr Rainbow's contacts with brewers across the world secured me an introduction to the Head of Brewing at Davis and an invitation to join his students on a visit to Lucky Lager Brewery in San Francisco. While there the group also visited a small, Japanese-owned soy sauce brewery, and I was fascinated by the scope for lactic acid bacteria to make a contribution to the complex fermentation.  When I took up a post at the University of Strathclyde, UK, the then Head of the Applied Microbiology Department; Professor Ernest O. Morris, had served as a microbiologist with the Royal Army Medical Corps in World War II. His experiences in South East Asia had made him interested in the many food fermentations that exist there, so he pushed me into supervising an M. Phil. student from Singapore on  a project looking at the enzymology and microbiology of soy sauce, arising from a chance remark during an account of the Lucky Lager visit.

What advice would you give to early career microbiologists?

Take opportunities as they come along.  You may not become a famous and highly specialised expert on a narrow field, and so you may not gain a D.Sc., but you will have a lot of fun, and the diverse experiences fit you to make connections across the sciences that will not be apparent to the narrow specialist.

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].