Which is better – publishing in a leading journal or having your music released on vinyl? Warwick’s Dr Lorenzo Frigerio is one of a small number of people able to answer that question. Gareth Jenkins joined him for coffee to talk rock, research and the rough endoplasmic reticulum.
'I grew up listening to Led Zeppelin, the Police, U2 - early U2 - and now I listen to the Foo Fighters.'
As I sit talking to Dr Lorenzo Frigerio in a Gibbet Hill campus café, I can’t help but be impressed by his musical tastes. I’d come to talk about his research into plant proteins, but after talking about some of his music-based outreach work, the conversation quickly turned to our favourite musicians, genres and a shared admiration for Dave Grohl. Before leaving Italy in 1998, Lorenzo was in a number of bands. He has some good band stories – mostly about drummers – and he’s still got the vinyl from those early days when his career could have taken a very different path. Rock’s loss is academia’s gain and Lorenzo now combines his love of science with his passion for music.
Lorenzo, along with Charlotte Carroll, a PhD student at Warwick, Dr Anne Osterrieder, a research and science communication fellow at Oxford Brookes, and Oxford musician Cyrus Mower, have been spending their spare time writing songs themed around the world of cell biology.
'It was Anne’s idea,' explains Lorenzo. 'She was the one who came up with the idea of having a cycle of songs themed around cellular organisms. She knew I played guitar so we got together and brought in a few other people.'
The idea came after Anne (and later the rest of the currently-nameless band) watched a video by an American academic, entitled ‘Sweet Home Apparatus’, a tune about Golgi - organelles found in most eukaryotic cells. The song is not, as you might think, a southern rock jam based on the Lynyrd Skynyrd classic – but is in fact an acoustic ballad in style (think Freebird with lab coats).
'There’s not a lot of professional music out there that covers the academic end of the spectrum,' says Lorenzo. 'It’s a fine line between doing something that’s just funny and doing something that’s both funny and informative. We wanted to pack our videos with factual content and we’re not selling out on the academic side of the project!'
The band currently has two videos on YouTube, with Lorenzo and Anne producing a third as a side project.
The first track is a Glen Campbell-style country ballad about the vacuole – the biggest organelle and the cell’s equivalent to a storage cupboard (which is nicely visualised in the music video below). The Vacuole Song’s chorus is among the lyrics Lorenzo is most proud of writing.
'Like all the best things, there was no deep thinking behind the song’s lyrics. It just came in one session. Anne and Charlotte came round to my house; we ate pizza in my garden and put the lyrics together there and then.'
For the second video, the band turned it up to 11 to produce Power Pack - The Mitochondria Rock Song.
'The original version was written to sound like the Foo Fighters but when Cyrus, our producer and the guy who sings on the final version heard it, he heard much more of a T-Rex vibe with falsetto vocals.'
Golgi Lullaby is the third video, Lorenzo and Anne’s side project and the track that is rapidly building up a play count in my iTunes library.
'The Golgi bodies move in what appears to be ¾ time. It’s quite hypnotic- a colleague described it as ‘looking at a lava lamp’ ' says Lorenzo. 'I layered six different guitars, starting with three notes, adding three and then another three and then you end up in a whole sequence. I’m very proud of it.'
'The next one will have to be a blues track. A lot of our YouTube hits come from school kids doing their research so, the chloroplast blues would be a logical next choice. The problem is that this is completely done in our spare time so it might be a year or more away. Although if we had someone say ‘I’m going to give you £10,000 and three full days of studio time and in that time you’ll produce six songs’ then I think we could make it happen sooner.'
When not in the studio, Lorenzo is in the lab or the lecture theatre and his work on food security and plant proteins is something he’s equally proud of.
Lorenzo’s work focusses on protein traffic in the plant secretory pathway.
'My personal interest is the vacuole and the endoplasmic reticulum. The latter’s the start of the secretory pathway and the vacuole’s one of the end points.'
Lorenzo, and the researchers in his team, are looking at the biogenesis of the organelle in the lab and how proteins travel within the secretory pathway.
'We’re asking very fundamental questions,' explains Lorenzo. 'How do the proteins know to go to the vacuole and not to a different place? For the endoplasmic reticulum we’re asking why it looks the way it does. It’s got a very strange shape – it looks like a fish net. We’ve identified some proteins which seem to be responsible for giving this shape and we’re now looking at how the shape relates to its function. Why? Well, if we change the shape, can we make more protein? Or less protein? Or could we convince the organelle to make a different protein?'
This research could reveal if food production can become more efficient, allowing us to produce more protein within the plants we’re already growing for food, rather than simply growing more of those plants to get a bigger crop.
'When it comes to scaling up productivity, the container is just as important as the content.'
Just like vinyl.
Dr Lorenzo Frigerio is Deputy Head of the School of Life Sciences at the University of Warwick. He has published in Plant Journal, New Phytologist and The Plant Cell. A list of his published work is available on his profile.