Meet the Scientist: Prof. Sudesh Kumar

interviewed by Dr. Lee Hooi Ling and Dr. Wong Kah Keng

Prof. Sudesh Kumar (PhD, RIKEN Institute & Saitama University, Japan) is a Professor of Microbiology and Biotechnology at the School of Biological Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM). His specialisation is in the field of microbiology, genetics and polymer chemistry of microbial polyesters (bioplastics). Prof. Sudesh has published more than 90 original research articles, two books, four patents, with more than ten PhD students graduated under his supervision, and he was awarded with multiple national and international grants. He is currently a RIKEN1 programme coordinator in USM. In this interview, we gain insights into his humble academic path to becoming an established scientist in biomaterials research.

Q1. What motivated you to delve into biological sciences research?
I think it is the influence of teachers. I remember having very good teachers who made the subject of biological sciences very interesting when I was in secondary school. When I was an undergraduate at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, I majored in Zoology. I especially liked animal behaviours, the diversity of life and environmental biology.

Q2. Your research areas are interdisciplinary consisting of molecular biology, chemistry and material sciences; why is that the case?
My main research is on an interesting plastic-like material produced by some bacteria. I started working in this area as a research project for my Masters in Biotechnology at Universiti Malaya. I found it very intriguing that a plastic-like material can be produced by some bacteria. What was even more fascinating is the fact that this plastic-like material was also completely biodegradable!

When we look at things from their apparent physical form, then there seems to be a clear difference between those things that are alive and those that lack the qualities that we use to define a life form. The study of anything that is alive can generally be categorised as biology. The term bios in Greek means ‘life’. However, if one looks deeper into all forms of life, the structural components that make up all forms of life are no different from the components found in lifeless forms.

As mentioned by Richard Feynman, “everything that living things do can be understood in terms of the jiggling and wiggling of atoms”. In other words, if one studies biology deeper then at some stage, chemistry and physics become essential. In order to understand biology better, one needs to know the structure-function relationship of biological components at the molecular level.

I use microorganisms to produce plastics. These microbial plastics have properties that are quite similar to the chemical plastics that we use widely nowadays. In order to produce the microbial plastics efficiently, one needs to understand the biology of microorganisms or microbiology. However, the knowledge of microbiology alone is not enough because one also needs to characterise the microbial plastics. Here, one needs to know some polymer chemistry and materials science. In this aspect, I was very fortunate because I had excellent supervisors who had trained me well in all aspects of the subjects. Hence, the interdisciplinary research is already part and parcel in my work.

Signing of a comprehensive agreement between USM and RIKEN for research and academic collaborations. From left: Mr. Motohide Yokota (Director of Global Relations Office), Prof. Ryoji Noyori (Nobel Laureate and President of RIKEN), Dato’ Prof. Omar Osman (Vice-Chancellor of USM) and Prof. Sudesh Kumar (Coordinator and Administrative Advisor for USM-RIKEN collaboration)

Signing of a comprehensive agreement between USM and RIKEN for research and academic collaborations.
From left: Mr. Motohide Yokota (Director of Global Relations Office), Prof. Ryoji Noyori (Nobel Laureate and President of RIKEN), Dato’ Prof. Omar Osman (Vice-Chancellor of USM) and Prof. Sudesh Kumar (Coordinator and Administrative Advisor for USM-RIKEN collaboration)

Q3. As a RIKEN programme1 coordinator in USM, can you explain more about the programme?
RIKEN is a premier research institute in Japan, and it is not a university. Therefore, RIKEN could not award degrees but nonetheless collaborates with various local and international universities so that university students could conduct research alongside scientists at RIKEN. Most RIKEN scientists hold visiting professor positions at various universities. For example, my PhD supervisor, Prof. Doi, held a visiting professor position at Saitama University where I was registered as a PhD student. This allowed me to do my research in his laboratory at RIKEN.

When I became a lecturer at USM in 2001, RIKEN signed an MoU with USM to enable students from USM to carry out PhD research at RIKEN. This was the beginning of a programme called Asian Program Associate (APA) between RIKEN and USM. Since then, the programme has further expanded and is now known as the International Program Associate (IPA). Currently, there are about ten USM students doing their PhD research at RIKEN under this programme. RIKEN has also selected USM as a strategic partner for long term academic and research collaboration. Since I have been involved in this programme from the beginning, last year RIKEN appointed me as an Administrative Advisor to further strengthen and expand collaboration between RIKEN and USM. Among my roles are to expand the collaboration between various researchers and disciplines in USM and RIKEN. In addition, I also monitor the progress of USM students at RIKEN by gathering feedback from them and also their supervisors.

Q4. What is your advice to potential candidates in the application for the RIKEN programme?
There is a big difference between researches carried out at universities in Malaysia and those at RIKEN. Highly qualified scientists and postdocs are the ones doing the research at RIKEN. In addition, the research topics are often very fundamental in nature.

Several years are spent on fundamental research questions before papers are published. The research ecosystem at RIKEN is therefore very intense. Thus, interested students must be prepared to work in a demanding and competitive environment. The research support system at RIKEN is very well- established. It is not an exaggeration to say that RIKEN is a paradise for researchers. Everything that researchers need is there. Since 2003, under the leadership of the Nobel laureate Dr. Ryoji Noyori, RIKEN has become increasingly internationalised. President Noyori proposed a set of initiatives which is known as the Noyori Initiatives. Among these initiatives are efforts to make RIKEN into an institution that motivates its researchers. Compared to the RIKEN that I knew 15 years ago, it is now a more vibrant and visible institute that is more comfortable for foreigners.

Examples of biodegradable plastic test samples that can be produced using microbial polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs)

Examples of biodegradable plastic test samples that can be produced using microbial polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs)

Q5. What are the main research questions that you are tackling at the moment?
We are doing scale-up works to produce biodegradable plastics from renewable resources that are available in Malaysia such as the products and by-products of our oil palm industry. In addition, we are also developing new applications for the biodegradable materials that we produce.

Q6. What do you think can be done to reduce the cost of plastics made of polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA)?

Polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) is polyester produced by bacteria that biodegrades easily. We have found that vegetable oils are excellent feedstock for high cell density fermentation as well as for the production of PHA. It is possible to obtain more than 100 g/L of dry cells containing about 80 wt% PHA from palm oil. In addition, we are also currently developing efficient processes for the collection, treatment and utilisation of used cooking oil for the production of PHA. With all these new developments, I believe that it is possible to reduce the cost of PHA.

Q7. What are the advantages of using or manipulating microorganisms from the tropical environment to generate biodegradable materials?
Studies on the production of PHA have been conducted in many countries all over the world. Many types of microorganisms have been isolated from various environments for this purpose. A few years ago, we found a very interesting bacterium from water samples obtained from the Seven Wells, Langkawi. The key enzyme involved in the synthesis of PHA in this bacterium was found to have the highest activity among all known PHA synthase enzymes2,3. By using the PHA synthase gene from this bacterium, we have developed an efficient recombinant microorganism capable of producing PHA from palm oil. I am sure that there are many more superior microorganisms in the tropical environment waiting to be discovered.

Q8. Do you think that Malaysia is in a strategic position for the production of biodegradable plastics?
Yes, we have the renewable resources for it. Unlike most other countries that rely on sugar-based feedstock, we have developed the technology to produce biodegradable plastics from various vegetable oils. Our studies have shown that the yield of biodegradable plastics from oils is much better than that from sugars4. Therefore, it is possible to produce biodegradable plastics at lower cost.

Q9. What do you think of the research funding situation in the public universities now as compared to ten years ago?
When I first joined USM in 2001, there were not many specialised research funds like what we have now. At that time, there was Short-Term Research Grant from the university and IRPA grant from the ministry. Now we have more grants e.g., Research University grant and APEX University grant from the university. We also have several funds from the ministry such as the eScience Fund, TechnoFund, and Fundamental Research Grant Scheme (FRGS). There are also specialised research grants for prototype development and commercialisation.

Q10. Finally, what is your advice to potential scientists and young researchers?
Nowadays there is a tremendous pressure to publish. This is because publication is one of the measurement criteria used to rank universities. Thus, many universities and research institutions are seeking to increase the number of publications they produce yearly. Among the various Key Performance Indexes (KPI) for researchers and lecturers, publication occupies the centre stage. Knowing the growing demand for publication, there are now some journals that would publish questionable studies for a payment.

Well established and reputable journals are on the other hand getting stricter with their selection of manuscript for publication. This is because world-class journals are also competing with each other to increase their Impact Factor, which is a metric commonly used to rank the popularity of journals. Potential scientists and young researchers should be aware that their publications are a testimony of their work. If their list of publications includes papers published in questionable journals, it would reflect negatively on them. It is better in the long term to spend time generating reproducible data and publish our work in reputable journals than to publish many papers in dubious journals just for the sake of publishing.

Prof. Sudesh with Dr. Lee Hooi Ling at the interview session.

Prof. Sudesh with Dr. Lee Hooi Ling at the interview session.

References

[1] http://www.riken.jp/en/
[2] Bhubalan et al. (2011) Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 7(9):2926-2933.
[3] Gene Encoding Microbial Polyester Synthase. Granted patent on 31st July 2012 in Singapore. Grant P-No.: 175705.
[4] Sudesh et al. (2011) Appl. Microbiol. Biotechnol. 9(5):1373-1386.