Matt Piper has had a hands-on interest in biology from an early age.

“I remember doing science experiments in the backyard as a kid.”

Matt was also early to recognise the importance of molecular biology.

“In my second year of uni, I thought that was obviously the way the field should be going.”

It felt natural for Matt to keep exploring this promising area, which led him to the School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences to do a PhD in Prof Ian Dawes’ lab.

“I remember not being sure I wanted to be in research at the start, but by the end I knew, yeah, this is for me.”

His research initially focused on the relationship between nutrient availability and the activation of a gene that regulates the glycine cleavage system (GCS) in yeast.

The GCS is a group of enzymes found in most organisms’ mitochondria. It is a vital part of our metabolism, catalysing the breakdown of the amino acids glycine and serine.

Matt soon became fascinated by the complexity of metabolism, and expanded his focus to the interconnected activity in the mitochondria and cytoplasm.

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“So my PhD went from looking at the regulation of this one gene to basically an entire microbial physiology project.”

Matt now heads up his own lab at Monash University. He continues to study metabolism, but has swapped yeast for fruit flies.

“We’re interested in how organisms turn food into phenotype. No one has really connected those dots at the mechanistic level.”

Protein restriction has been one of their focus areas.

“It turns out that if you keep all the other nutrients in the flies’ diet constant, and just manipulate the protein content, you produce basically the same outcomes as restricting all nutrients.”

Understanding the impact of nutrient availability at this detailed level could help us design dietary interventions for better health outcomes, longer lifespans and more efficient use of our limited resources.

His advice for PhD students is to follow their interests, even if this takes them down an unconventional path.

“Be aware of the rules, but don’t be completely constrained by them.”

Written by Krista Recsei