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UCL Division of Biosciences

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Prof John Allen

Prof John Allen

Visiting Professor

Genetics, Evolution & Environment

Div of Biosciences

Joined UCL
1st Nov 2012

Research summary

Current interests

Chloroplasts and mitochondria

Why do chloroplasts and mitochondria contain distinct genetic systems to make a small but constant sub-set of their own proteins? I propose that redox control of gene expression explains the function of the genomes of chloroplasts and mitochondria and their retention, in evolution, as extra-nuclear genetic systems. This hypothesis is named “CoRR” for “Co-location for Redox Regulation”. CoRR states that redox regulation of gene expression repays, on its own, the huge cost of maintaining genetic systems in the chloroplasts and mitochondria of eukaryotic cells. For animal mitochondria, this cost includes ageing and death of the individual. Template mitochondria are rescued and granted immortality by means of maternal inheritance and sex. Redox chemistry is thus a key to understanding both cell evolution and biological energy transduction. In my laboratory, Sujith Puthiyaveetil has found the conserved, ancestral, “bacterial” sensor kinase that couples electron transport to chloroplast gene transcription, and whose existence and properties are predicted by CoRR. Numerous experimental predictions flow from this key discovery.

The origin of atmospheric oxygen

 
I propose that oxygen-evolving photosynthesis arose from a simple mutation that produced constitutive expression of two sets of reaction centre genes, otherwise expressed at different times and in different places in an anaerobic bacterium. Shared electron carriers then connected the two, newly co-existing photosystems, giving rise to photosystem I and photosystem II and to the first cyanobacterium. The electrical connection allowed indefinitely renewable generation of electrochemical potentials high enough to oxidise water to oxygen. This testable hypothesis provides an insight into the origin of oxygenic photosynthesis - the profound evolutionary and geochemical transition that paved the way for aerobic respiration, eukaryotes, multicellularity, plants and animals, and colonisation of the land.

Mitochondria, ageing, separate sexes

Fertilization of an egg by a sperm, like all life processes, requires energy, which is provided in the form of ATP. ATP is made in mitochondria. However, there is a price to pay – mitochondria also contain DNA, which becomes progressively degraded by the chemistry required for ATP synthesis. We show that egg mitochondria are radically different from all others by being in a state of suspended animation – unable to use the information in their DNA to make the protein machinery of respiration. Sperm mitochondria wear out and are discarded when their job is done. But, in their germ-lines, females carry mitochondria that never grow old.

Regulation of photosynthesis

In photosynthesis, the redox state of the electron carrier plastoquinone controls phosphorylation of proteins of the chloroplast light-harvesting pigment-protein complex, LHC II. This control explains the phenomenon of “state 1-state 2 transitions” in plants and algae. Our results that first suggested this hypothesis have been corroborated in many laboratories and experimental systems. Light-harvesting function of chloroplast chlorophyll-proteins is universally regulated to restore redox poise within the photosynthetic electron transport chain. A major goal is an atomic-resolution structural description of the effects of phosphorylation of LHC II on its interactions with chloroplast photosystem I and photosystem II.

Teaching summary

At UCL, two lectures in the second-year module "Energy and Evolution"

Biography

orcid.org/0000-0002-0950-0429


Career

2015-present. Honorary Professor, University College London, U.K
2005-14. Professor of Biochemistry, Queen Mary University of London, U.K.
2005-09. Royal Society–Wolfson Research Merit Award Holder.
1992-2004. Professor of Plant Cell Biology, Lund University, Sweden.
1990-92. Professor of Plant Physiology, University of Oslo, Norway.
1983-89. Lecturer, Department of Pure and Applied Biology, University of Leeds, U.K. 1986-87. Nuffield Foundation Science Research Fellow. Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, University of California, Berkeley, California, U.S.A.
1979-83. Postdoctoral Research Assistant, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Warwick, U.K.
1980. Visiting Research Associate, University of Illinois, Urbana, Illinois, U.S.A.
1975-77. SRC Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Botany School, University of Oxford, U.K.

Education

BSc London. School of Biological Sciences, King's College London, 1972. PhD London. King's College London, 1975.
Postgraduate Certificate in Education. Oxford University, 1979. 
Secondary. Hartridge High School, Newport, Monmouthshire, U.K.

Recent Honours and Awards

2015-17. Leverhulme Emeritus Research Fellow
2012-13. Visiting Professor, Genetics, Evolution and Environment, University College London. 2009-present. Fellow of the Linnean Society of London.
2009-10. Fellow of the Institute of Biology.
2009. Rudi Lemberg Fellow of the Australian Academy of Sciences.
2007. William Evans Fellow, Otago University, New Zealand.

Research Grants

Total 36 separate awards from Research Councils, Trusts and Foundations in U.K. (Leverhulme, Wellcome, Royal Society, Nuffield Foundation, SERC, BBSRC, NERC), Norway (NAVF, Nordic Energy Research Programme), Sweden (Vetenskapsrådet, Crafoord, Schyberg, and other Foundations), and the European Commission.

Distinguished Doctoral and Postdoctoral Researchers

Sujith Puthiyaveetil (MSc Jawaharlal Nehru University, PhD London) Research Student 2003-2005 (Lund) 2005-2009 (London), Postdoctoral Researcher 2009-2012, now Professor of Biochemistry, Purdue University; 
Thomas Pfannschmidt (PhD Bochum) DFG Postdoctoral Researcher 1996-97, now Professor, Laboratoire de Physiologie Cellulaire et Végétale, Université Joseph Fourier, Grenoble; 
Nicholas F. Tsinoremas (PhD Leeds) Research Student 1988-91, now Professor of Medicine and Director of the University of Miami Center for Computational Science, School of Medicine, University of Miami; 
Michael A. Harrison, (PhD Leeds) Research Student 1987-90, now Lecturer in the School of Biomedical Sciences, University of Leeds; 
Conrad W. Mullineaux (PhD Leeds) Research Student 1985-88, now Professor of Microbiology, Queen Mary University of London.

Research seminars, invited lectures, contributions to scientific meetings

> 300 presentations, in 22 countries and 4 continents, of which 19 are plenary or named lectures.

Publications