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Great British bioscience pioneers – Professor Richard Cogdell

Great British Bioscience Pioneers - Professor Richard Cogdell - 19 June 2014. Richard Cogdell
Highlights from: 20 years of bioscience

Continuing our series of articles on Great British bioscience pioneers, we take a look at the career of Professor Richard Cogdell, Director of the Institute of Molecular, Cell and Systems Biology at the University of Glasgow and his pioneering research on photosynthetic bacteria, whose intricate processes could be harnessed for the production of clean, green energy.

Richard at a small photosynthesis conference in London 1976, around a year after returning from the US. Image: Richard Cogdell
Richard at a small photosynthesis conference in London 1976, around a year after returning from the US.
Image: Richard Cogdell

How did your bioscience career first begin?

"I started work on bacterial photosynthesis as a PhD student under the direction of Professor Tony Crofts at the University of Bristol in 1970. In 1973, I went to the USA, working with Professor Rod Clayton at Cornell University and Professor Bill Parson at the University of Washington. It was at this time that I started to work on reaction centres in purple bacteria - complex proteins that are at the very heart of photosynthesis, where solar energy is converted into chemical energy.

"Then in November 1975, I returned to the UK, taking a lectureship in Botany at the University of Glasgow, where I have been ever since. Coming back to an empty lab at Glasgow, I knew I wouldn't be able to compete with the large US labs working on reaction centres. Thus I decided to focus my attention on an even earlier step in photosynthesis, where solar energy is captured by light harvesting complexes and transferred to the reaction centres.

"Looking back, it's interesting to realise that I got this position when I was 26. I think the whole research climate was different then. You were given time to learn how to be an independent scientist, and were allowed time to make mistakes. Nowadays, we expect our new, young lecturers to become stars immediately. I'm not sure that the pressure so early on in their careers is such a good idea."

What are you working on now?

"More recently, my work has expanded into the area of renewable energy, looking to translate research on photosynthesis into novel ways of using solar energy to produce clean, renewable fuels. This is one of the main challenges facing mankind if we are to control and indeed reverse climate change.

"I've also been involved in some of the striking new studies appearing to show that strange quantum effects may be important in optimising the efficiency of the initial light harvesting reactions in photosynthesis.

"When I started my research career, I was just driven by the desire to understand a fundamental part of biology. It's interesting now to reflect how that interest has taken me into areas of science that I never would have believed possible when I started."

What advances have you seen in your chosen field in the last 20 years?

"Probably the biggest advance in my area of science has been the determination of the 3D structures of the major membrane proteins involved in the light reactions of photosynthesis. It wasn't very long ago that is was thought to be impossible to determine the structure of membrane proteins using x-ray crystallography. These structural studies have really allowed functional studies to precisely define most of the reactions involved in the first few seconds of photosynthesis.

"In recent years, laser techniques have advanced remarkably which has opened the door to studying the light reactions of photosynthesis, right the way down into the femtosecond (quadrillionth of a second) time region. Our knowledge of these reactions has advanced hand in hand with the development of laser technology."

A schematic view of the arrangement of LH2 and LH1/RC Complex within a typical purple bacterial photosynthetic membrane. Image: Richard Cogdell, University of Glasgow
A schematic view of the arrangement of LH2 and LH1/RC Complex within a typical purple bacterial photosynthetic membrane. Image: Richard Cogdell, University of Glasgow

What are the five key bioscience milestones that you've been part of?

Richard in 2013 at TGAC at the time when he was Chair of the Board of Trustees. Image: Richard Cogdell
Richard in 2013 at TGAC at the time when he was Chair of the Board of Trustees. Image: Richard Cogdell

How has BBSRC supported you throughout your career?

"I have been lucky enough to have been supported by BBSRC and indeed its precursors AFRC and SERC ever since I have been in Glasgow. I am very grateful for this support. From the moment I first got crystals of LH2 to the publication of its structure took a period of 13 years.

"I was particularly fortunate that the BBSRC had a Membrane Initiative that allowed me to have long term funding to support me over that extended period when I had crystals but no structure.

"I think that it's important for the BBSRC to have some long term funding programmes that allow important work that does take time to be funded. Without this, many major breakthroughs will never be made."