Professor Mick Watson on the livestock microbiome
The challenges of applying bioinformatics to make sense of genes, the value of networking, and the allure of funding free of politics.
Professor Mick Watson is Personal Chair of Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at the Roslin Institute. His work focuses on the microbiome and how this affects livestock feed conversion and emissions. He spoke to PhD student and Principal’s Career Development Scholar Madison MacLeay about his passion for science and the unusual path that led to becoming a renowned bioinformatician.
Can you tell me about your work in a nutshell?
We study the microbiome; this is composed of microbes, tiny organisms that live in and on animals. We study primarily those that live in the gut because they help animals digest their feed and turn it into nutrition and energy. That’s really important in farming because we want to make sure that animals produce lots of milk, eggs, or meat from the feed we give them, and we want to make sure they use as few natural resources as possible, because sustainability is really important right now. You can take the contents of an animal’s stomach and extract all the DNA and sequence it. That’s called metagenomics, because you’re sequencing multiple organisms at the same time. Part of my job is trying to put it all back together and try to figure out how many species were in there and what they were doing.
What drew you to working with the microbiome?
It was the sheer excitement of discovery, because a lot of these microbes that we sequence have never been seen before … it seemed like a new frontier.
Are there any common misconceptions about what a genome scientist does?
I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about what I do, for example, among experimental scientists. People may think that when you’ve done something once, it should be easy to do it again, because it’s computational – we just press the button and off it goes! A huge amount of time is in refining data and getting it in the right format, dealing with odd things that break our software, and other things we’ve never seen before. We also have to continuously keep up to date with the latest developments. It’s an intensive area of research, working hard at the terminal.
What was your career path towards your current role?
I’ve had a very different career to the traditional academic path. I did an undergraduate degree in biology and then a masters in biological computation. I had the choice to do a PhD or work in industry, and I chose the latter. I had jobs in human biotechnology and drug discovery. It wasn’t until about 2002 I was offered my first position in academia. It was a principal investigator-level position – the sector was so keen for people with my skills, using computers to analyse biology, that they were willing to overlook my lack of PhD and lack of experience. That just doesn’t happen to most people in academia.
From there, I began publishing papers and applying for grants to build a research group, moving to Roslin in 2010, where I helped manage the technology service ARK-Genomics, which later became Edinburgh Genomics. I was made a professor in 2016, with more than 100 peer reviewed papers to my name at the time.
Has your blog, opiniomics.org, and your presence on social media led to any opportunities?
It’s been absolutely massive. My blog was always supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, poking fun. My first post was really popular and I think that’s what got me hooked. It’s hugely increased my network, my sphere of influence and knowledge. I think more people know about me than otherwise would, but it’s led to increased exposure to the group’s research, which is great.
I think it does have its downsides, in that the first thing people hear about me isn’t necessarily the science that I do, it’s that I have a big Twitter following. And again, like the blog, my Twitter feed is meant to be a little bit sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek, but it’s hard to get nuance across in 280 characters.
What do you think will be the next big thing for bioinformatics?
In my field, technology changes all the time, really rapidly. I used to work mostly with microarray data – arranging DNA on a surface to measure activity in genes. This disappeared overnight because it was replaced by short-read sequencing – examining genetic code in short sections. And all of that’s disappearing because everyone’s starting long-read sequencing, looking at longer sections of DNA. First of all, we have to adapt properly to these long-read sequences.
Longer term, things like protein sequencing will come up. You can detect genes really easily; it’s very hard to detect proteins. We still use mass spectrometry, which is quite an old technology. Developments here will open up a huge area of science that just isn’t accessible right now.
What advice would you give to an aspiring biologist?
There is quite a lot of advice on my blog, but one piece of advice would be to network. Science is about having ideas and testing those ideas with good experiments, but what’s really important is to make sure that no one else is doing those things, or if someone’s tried them and they don’t work. I think if you go out and talk to people, you can test your ideas and refine them to be the best they can be. I remember around 2004, at a conference, Professor Mike Eisen of the University of California, Berkeley was giving a keynote speech about fruit fly genetics. Right in the middle of his talk, he stopped and said, “by the way, microarrays are dead. Everything’s going to be replaced by high throughput sequencing”. It made me sit up in my seat because all of my tools and knowledge and experience was with microarrays. He was ahead of the curve and he was right. Had I never attended that conference and seen that talk, maybe I wouldn’t have known. You’ve got to get out there, listen to science, talk to people, and you’ll get a little bit of a headwind about what’s coming.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a scientist and why?
Probably I’d like to be a science funder for a foundation like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Gates Foundation, or the Wellcome Trust, being able to influence where money gets spent to tackle the biggest problems the world’s facing. I think maybe we don’t always spend it in the right way. What governments spend money on is really controlled too much by politics. The great thing about these foundations is they’re free of politics. I would definitely love to be in that kind of area.