Scientists at Norwich Research Park are harnessing state-of-the-art technologies to tackle urgent issues such as coronavirus and antimicrobial resistance. Director of the Quadram Institute Professor Ian Charles discusses how ‘omics technologies can help us better understand microorganisms and how they impact our health.

Eastern Daily Press: ‘I have a profound love of nature,’ says professor Ian Charles, pictured with his wife Sue Picture: Sue Charles‘I have a profound love of nature,’ says professor Ian Charles, pictured with his wife Sue Picture: Sue Charles (Image: Archant)

Each month, those working at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park tell us how their work is shaping the world we live in. Read their stories here.

What are ‘omics technologies and why are they important?

The major ‘omics technologies are genomics, proteomics and metabolomics. These technologies analyse genes, proteins and metabolites that are present in cells – gut cells or neurons, for example – in order to get a clear understanding of how they are behaving.

The ‘omics technologies being used at the Quadram Institute analyse genomes, proteomes and metabolomes to answer big questions. We interrogate them with sophisticated algorithms and bioinformatics to understand how genes and genomes can impact our health.

In January, we saw what was happening in Wuhan and early on I pulled together our team to discuss what the impact might be and how we could help. For example, our expertise in genomic epidemiology meant we could make a contribution to societal understanding of the pandemic by sequencing the genomes of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, tracking the evolution of the organism throughout the community. That is a powerful way to get insight into the spread of a pathogen and to help manage outbreaks.

Similarly, we are ideally placed to answer questions about the role of food on health, as well as antimicrobial resistance.

How did you end up working here in Norwich?

I was director of an infectious diseases institute in Sydney, Australia in 2014 when I heard that Norwich Research Park was looking for a new director to transition from the old Institute of Food Research into the new Quadram Institute.

What does your role as director involve?

The responsibilities of any director are to provide the vision and strategy behind which everyone can align, and to make sure the machine works. Modern science research is interdisciplinary, which means the various components must work together. The name Quadram comes from our four partners – the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH), the University of East Anglia (UEA) and Quadram Institute Bioscience (QIB).

We have attracted some truly amazing individuals to work at Quadram to drive innovative research on subjects such as genomic epidemiology, antimicrobial resistance and the microbiome.

We are working to understand how the genes and genomes of organisms and microorganisms can contribute to health and disease. The next-generation DNA sequencing set up we have in place here at the Quadram Institute can be used to decode thousands of genomes and understand more about their origins in order to learn what could impact our health. This requires a deep understanding of the science using new approaches and technologies.

Did you always want to work in science-based research?

I was interested in science from a very young age, building my own crystal and transistor radios back in the 1960s. My first love was physics and maths, but I became interested in biological sciences and the complexities of life after reading Charles Darwin and did my undergraduate degree in zoology.

The biotech revolution started in the 1970s when Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer transplanted genes from one living organism into another. I decided I wanted to be a part of that and embrace new philosophies of science.

What’s the best thing about working at Norwich Research Park?

It’s so good to be part of a team that is making a difference. Academics can sometimes be portrayed as set apart from society, but when you see what we can do when we bring together the institutes with the hospital and the university, we can really respond in a positive and constructive way to societal needs.

Doing science that is not only world-leading in terms of its concept, but science that has a societal impact is terribly important.

We should be very proud of the state-of-the-art facilities we have here in Norwich – they are absolutely top rank. We also have a clinical trials unit at Quadram and it is this interaction between research scientists and the biomedical community which makes it such a special place to work.

What do you get up to when you are not working?

Keeping fit is important to me, so I like to exercise – whether that’s on my exercise bike, going out for a run, a walk or morning yogic headstands!

I’m a scuba diver and I loved diving when I lived in Australia. One of the great attractions of living in Norwich is driving out to the coast. I have a profound love of nature and when the seal pups are being born on the coast it is just stunningly beautiful.

Professor Ian Charles is director of the Quadram Institute at Norwich Research Park. Follow on Twitter @TheQuadram