Dr Simon Lillico on gene-edited livestock
Building better animal models to investigate human disease, producing healthier animals and enjoying nature.
Dr Simon Lillico is an expert in gene technology and is at the forefront of applying genome editors to livestock for disease resilience and more accurate models of human disease. In this interview he talks to MSc Science Communication student Kimberly Nunlist about his work and its applications.
Can you tell me about your work in a nutshell?
My work has two main aims. One is to build more reliable animal models of human disease. Most human disease research is done in mice, but larger animals would make better models because they are more similar to us in terms of both size and physiology, so the scientific discoveries and translational tools we can develop are more directly applicable to humans.
The other aim is to produce healthier animals by reducing their susceptibility to common diseases, through small genetic changes.
Why did you become a scientist and what drew you to this particular field?
When I was young, I wanted to be David Attenborough. I’ve always been interested in nature programmes. My first degree was in zoology at the University of Edinburgh, starting in 1990. I really loved doing the course, but it became clear to me that there were limited career options in zoology. So I did a master’s degree in parasitology at the University of Liverpool, and I stuck with parasitology for my PhD and my first postdoc at the University of Glasgow, working on African trypanosomes.
I could quite happily have stayed in that field, but I saw an advert from Professor Helen Sang’s group at the Roslin Institute for a research fellow to produce transgenic chickens that expressed therapeutic proteins in their eggs, and thought that would be really interesting. That work was absolutely different from working with trypanosomes, but the molecular and cell biology methodologies were all very easily transferable, and I had the skills to do it. So I left Glasgow and came to Roslin, and I’ve been here ever since.
Five years after taking up that role, I joined Professor Bruce Whitelaw’s group, working with him to run his group. The technology has evolved, and I’ve worked on a variety of projects on livestock, disease-resistant animals and animal models of human disease.
What advice would you give students who want to go into science?
I think the key thing is to do things that you find interesting and it doesn’t have to be always the same thing. You can find different things interesting. I am always impressed by people who have a very clear vision of where they want to go and they’re driven to get there, but that has not been me. I have done the things that I have enjoyed and I think that is important to avoid burnout, if nothing else. You have to enjoy the job you do.
What is a typical workday like?
It's changed over the years. When I first came to the Institute, I did purely lab work, and in the early days after moving to my current position, I did predominantly lab work but with more supervisory roles. As time has progressed, my work has become more supervisory and less hands-on, but I'm trying to turn that around because I enjoy the lab work. I don't dislike the supervisory work, but I don't want to sit in meetings all day, every day.
So a typical day at Roslin, before the Covid pandemic, would be a couple of hours in the lab, two or three hours in meetings, and a couple of hours working with colleagues who drop by my desk.
How has the pandemic affected your routine?
At the beginning of the pandemic I was fairly unproductive. When we couldn’t go into the lab, I found it very difficult to focus and home-schooling took a toll on opportunities to work. I loved the first lockdown because I could spend more time with my family, but it was difficult to be productive with all the distractions around me. Now I am doing lab work again – I was in the lab all morning today.
Do you have a favourite project from your time at Roslin?
I think your favourite projects are always the ones that have worked really well. I really like science that has application. I worked on a project that aimed to produce pigs that are resistant to a deadly virus that causes porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome. The project was partly funded by a very large pig breeding company and they're interested in getting this product to market. They’re talking to the US Food and Drug Administration and regulators in other countries because they see the work’s significant market value. It gives you a real buzz to know that you’ve done something that has a real-world application.
What challenges do you face as a scientist?
Science is just a series of challenges. If you have a day without challenges then you might as well have just stayed in bed.
How do you see the future of your field?
My field has changed significantly over the past 15 years. Historically, we could modify the genetic makeup of animals – their genomes – by inserting new genes relatively easily. With the advent of genome editors and our ability to precisely modify livestock genomes, we can now do so much better. We can modify the animal’s own genes to replicate a mutation that causes disease in humans, and this leads to far more accurate models than we could have done previously.
In parallel with that, the European Union is now thinking about changing its position on gene editing legislation and the UK is no longer part of the EU and thus is free to make its own decisions on legislation around this area. So I think the opportunities for us, both in the technologies we have available and in market acceptance, make this a really exciting time to do what I do.
What is it about the Roslin environment that has led you to work there for 14 years?
It's friendly – people are nice at Roslin. I’ve never worked anywhere that I haven't enjoyed. I loved my undergraduate, my masters and my PhD. I am aware that there are workplaces that aren’t nice. I’ve just been fortunate that I haven't found myself in any of them. I’ve been fortunate that the people I ended up working with have all been really nice people.
If you could share a tea with any other scientist, who would it be?
It would be the famous physicist Professor Brian Cox, because gravity fascinates me, and yet I really don't understand it. I’ve heard him discuss gravity, and while I can clearly see it in action all around me I still have no grasp of what it actually is. I understand light, electricity, matter, but I don't understand gravity. I don't even know where to begin because it doesn’t seem to involve a particle - unless the gravitons of Star Trek are real. I suspect that physicists don't fully understand it either. So a cup of tea, or a beer, with Brian Cox would be quite fun.
What do you like to do outside of work?
Pre-Covid, I was travelling a lot for work, which was a real privilege. I was in a different country every other month. The year before I was in Ethiopia, Kenya and China. The year before that I was in Brazil, the US and Spain. When the work schedule allows free time, I enjoy just getting out and walking about and seeing other places. A couple of years back, I was in Beijing for a conference on my birthday and I celebrated with a walk along part of the Great Wall of China.
What would you be if you weren’t a scientist?
Probably something related to horticulture because I enjoy gardening, or working outdoors. The outdoors is what got me into science in the first place – watching the birds in the woods was the route towards zoology, and finding out how the natural world works.