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Great British bioscience pioneers – Professor Richard Mithen

Great British bioscience pioneers – Professor Richard Mithen - 15 July 2014. IFR
Highlights from: 20 years of bioscience

Continuing our series of articles on Great British bioscience pioneers, we take a look at Richard Mithen, programme leader at the Institute of Food Research which receives strategic funding from BBSRC, whose research has been pivotal in the development of a super broccoli that is available in supermarkets across the UK. This body of work, which has spanned more than 20 years, has provided insights into the role of foods in promoting health and has shown how this understanding can lead to the development of potentially more nutritious varieties of vegetables.

Copyright: Richard Mithen
‘Standing on the shoulders of giants’ Richard Mithen (pictured standing on the shoulders of Professor Mats Gustafsson of the Swedish University of Agricultural Science, also with Dr Petri Perino, Director of the Italian Genebank) collecting Brassica incana on the Amalfi Coast in 1983. Not all the wild Brassica populations grew in mountains. Some had found a home on the roadsides. Copyright: Richard Mithen

How did your bioscience career first begin?

I rather drifted into doing a degree in plant sciences, and then a PhD at the University of East Anglia (UEA). While there, I managed to get invited to join an expedition to collect wild Brassica species from southern Italy, and the director of the John Innes Centre, Professor Harold Woolhouse, kindly provided some financial assistance. Following my PhD, I spent a further four years collecting wild plants in Africa. This was a wonderful experience and very much stimulated my interest in pursuing a career in research.

What are you working on now?

My research is concerned with how diets rich in cruciferous vegetables can maintain and promote heath. This research originated from the plant collecting I undertook in Italy as I used a wild Brassica that we'd collected in Sicily to develop a broccoli cultivar with high levels of a particular compound called glucoraphanin, which may provide health benefits.

My current focus is a dietary intervention study with men who have localised prostate cancer. We are investigating how a diet rich in high glucoraphanin broccoli may modify lipid metabolism to prevent tumour growth.

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

Where do you start? Genomics has revolutionised our understanding of many aspects of biology – from the evolution and organisation of plant genomes, to how changes in the diet may have subtle effects on the expression of many human genes with consequences on metabolism and health. I would also say that developments in bench top mass spectroscopy have greatly facilitated our ability to analyse both human and plant metabolites.

What are the five key bioscience milestones that you've been part of and when did these occur?

How has BBSRC supported you throughout your career?

I have worked in BBSRC-supported institutes for much of my career, firstly as a group leader at the John Innes Centre, and secondly as a research leader at the Institute of Food Research, and I have received excellent support from BBSRC, for which I am most grateful.