“When I was three, I got stung by a bee. When I was five, I got the Observer’s Book of Butterflies. By the age of ten, I had started to form my own reference collection of British insects. Entomologists feel innately passionate about insects. When we are small children we feel drawn towards these creatures.
We keep caterpillars in jars and rear them through to adult moths and butterflies. We learn how to identify the different species. Later, we take on the challenge of tackling the more difficult groups, such as beetles, many of which are hard to find and hard to identify. Rather than become a professional entomologist, I decided to make entomology my hobby.
As things turned out, I became a microbiologist. At medical school I was introduced to bacteria. We soon became the best of friends. Bacteria are a bit like insects, except that they are much smaller, even more diverse and even more challenging to study. In 2008 I joined a research consortium called Modernising Medical Microbiology. The MMM programme of research uses whole genome sequencing to study medically important bacteria and to develop methods that can be applied in routine laboratories. Access to whole genome sequence data makes it possible to work just about everything that you might want to know about a bacterium. It is as though bacteria have suddenly become visible at long last. In a way it is not surprising that I should have taken an interest in genes and bacteria. When I was about ten years old I found a book in the school library.
It was called Butterflies, in the New Naturalist series. The book contained a chapter about the genetics of butterflies and from it I learned the principles of Mendelian inheritance. I discovered that the author had also written a book about medical genetics and it made me aware that there might be more to life than insects. I am currently working on the manuscript of a book for the New Naturalist series about bacteria.” – John Paul.