Professor Mick Watson on the Genomics@Edinburgh network

He talks about the founding of Genomics@Edinburgh, the importance and challenges in microbiome/metagenome research, the unusual gift he received, and the importance of being a good writer in academia.

Professor Mick Watson is a Chair of Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at the Roslin Institute. His work focuses on the microbiome and its influence on feed conversion and emissions in livestock. 

Professor Mick Watson is also Director of Genomics@Edinburgh, a newly established network and hub for all genomics research at the University of Edinburgh.

Why did you decide to start the Genomics @Edinburgh network?

The University of Edinburgh is probably one of the leading universities in the world when it comes to the breadth and depth of genomics research. However, because we are scattered across the city and genomics activities take place in multiple institutes, schools, and colleges, we may not be promoting our work enough, communicating enough, or taking advantage of enough opportunities for impact and funding. The network was formed to address these issues.

Who do you think will contribute to the network?

I use the term 'genomics' in its broadest sense - to me it means anyone who takes a 'whole genome approach' or uses genomic information in their research. So it also includes other 'omics' techniques (proteomics, transcriptomics, metabolomics), basically anyone who considers the whole cell, whole tissue or whole organism in their research, anyone who uses genomic information, or anyone who uses sequencing technologies.

Who can participate in the network: anyone! If you are interested in genomics (as defined above), you should join - whether you are a janitor, receptionist, student, post-doc, professor, or even the principal. Everyone is welcome!

What is your goal for the genomics @Edinburgh network?

The goal of the network is to create opportunities - for more collaboration, greater impact, and more resources for the university. We can do this by communicating better, leveraging our diverse skills, and building multidisciplinary teams capable of exciting science. Genomics is a fundamental technology that spans the biological and medical sciences, and we do so much of it here in Edinburgh. Someone doing research at HGU might find a GWAS hit in humans, and that gene might have been knocked out in chickens by someone at Roslin - and if we are not careful, those two people will not know about each other, will not communicate with each other, and will not take advantage of the fact that they are working on the same gene. It's really important that we bring together researchers from all over the city and make sure that we are working together to make a difference.

Ultimately, I want to bring funding to the network, both from funding agencies and industry partners, and create new opportunities at the university. Watch this space!

How do you plan to achieve this goal?

We have held a series of events to show what our researchers are doing, we have a bi-weekly newsletter to keep everyone up to date on current opportunities, we have a new website (, a Twitter feed, and a mailing list with hundreds of subscribers (mailing list). So we can communicate now! I do not think we have made the best use of these communication channels yet, but we are working hard on it and have lots of ideas.

In terms of revenue, we are already talking to a number of genomics companies that might be willing to support the network with cash or in-kind donations. I have been working with both Edinburgh Innovations and Edinburgh Global to pursue a number of opportunities for greater impact.

Could you briefly summarise your work?

My research group now focuses primarily on the microbiome - defined as the set of microbes that live in a given ecosystem. We are working on bioinformatics and computational methods for assembling and analysing sequence data from diverse microbiomes and focusing on how taxonomic and functional shifts underlie important traits in livestock. We are eager to expand our work beyond farm animals and are already collaborating with human gut research. The microbiome is fascinating because it provides a whole range of metabolic activities that are not encoded in our own genomes. At the same time, however, all animals have a complex relationship with their microbiome that is not always symbiotic, as changes in the microbiome have been linked to all sorts of diseases and immune disorders. My prediction is that we will find that the microbiome has some form of influence on thousands of traits in the biology of humans, animals, and plants - we are just beginning to scratch the surface!

Why is your research important? How is it relevant to people's lives?

The microbiome is truly a new field that impacts human, animal, plant and environmental health. To study the microbiome, we need to know what it contains, and my group is focused on solving this problem using advanced analytical and bioinformatics techniques.

What are the major challenges in your field?

Genome assembly from short sequencing data has been compared to taking a book, tearing the pages into tiny shreds, and then trying to put it back together. In microbiome/metagenome research, there is not just one book, but thousands of books. Therefore, metagenome assembly has been likened to an entire library, where you tear all the pages of all the books into tiny pieces and then try to put each book back together. There are some amazing techniques out there, but we believe we have one of the best platforms for doing this. Our group has developed some great innovations that allow us to create really accurate genomes from metagenomic sequence data.

What inspired you to be a scientist?

I always loved biology in school, but when I was young I always wanted to be a doctor (a medical doctor!). Then during my A-levels I did an internship with a heart surgeon and I think when I was literally standing next to a patient's head while they cut open their chest, I decided that maybe medicine was not for me! It was not until I went to university and saw how biology and computers intersected that I knew what I wanted to do. We had a practical course where we had to write a BASIC programme demonstrating the Lotka-Volterra model - my lecturers did not know it, but I spent HOURS with my mother when I was very young, typing BASIC programmes (from a book!) into our Commodore Vic 20 so we could play Space Invaders! Later, when I was a bit older, I hacked into my Spectrum 48 football manager game (again, written in BASIC!) so I would have endless money for transfers! By the time I did this internship at the university, I knew BASIC inside and out. I realised the power of computers in conjunction with biology and never looked back.

What do you like best about your job? What do you like the least?

What I love most: discovering new things. That's by far the most exciting part of my job.

What I like least: spam and administration. For the life of me, I do not know why my employer pays me to do research, but then prevents me from doing that research by sending me hundreds of emails a day and forcing me to fill out endless forms.

If you could have tea with another scientist (alive or dead), who would it be? What would you talk about?

I would like to talk to a group of funders, for example, Bill Gates, Jeremy Farrar, and Ottoline Leyser. Together they are responsible for funding bodies that fund billions of pounds worth of research every year. I think it would be really interesting to discuss their research visions with them and challenge them.

What is the most unusual thing you have done as a scientist?

A few years ago, we published an article on rumen metagenomics and the news went viral, reaching a worldwide audience. The next day, a dairy farmer called me and we talked about some problems he was having with his cows and how he thought water supply might be affecting his cattle. It was a very pleasant conversation and I really wanted to help him. A few weeks later, without notice, he showed up at my office with three bags of cow poop! I am a computer biologist and really did not know what to do, I was not trained for that!

If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be doing?

Writing really bad sci-fi novels.

Do you have any advice for people who want to go into this field of research or start a career as a scientist?

I am cautious about giving advice. I am a straight white British male, probably one of the most privileged populations on the planet, and my success has undoubtedly been influenced by that privilege, but also by luck. Ok, yes, maybe a little hard work and a little good science too. But who am I to give advice to people? I would say that being an academic can be the best job in the world, but it can also be incredibly stressful and incredibly lonely (when things are not going well). One thing people may not know is that I am a writer. That's all an academic is. It's a job where you write - grants, papers, reports - and so if you do not like to write or you are very slow, then maybe it's not for you. The greatest skill you can have as an academic is the ability to write good prose very quickly. If after you get your PhD you think, "God, I hope I never have to write again!" then maybe PI is not for you...

Related Links

Mick Watson profile